Nothing Will Go Back: An Interview with Dr. Andrea Pető of Central European University

They’re getting more scholarly attention now. So I was inspired by a feminist walk in Novi Sad, Serbia, which I saw while visiting the city for my book launch in the early 2000s. It’s a very good example of the methodological and moral challenges that somebody faces while doing an interview. Andrea Pető’s writing earlier this year, I was thrilled to have found a vocal feminist scholar from Hungary. With our communist heritage and the new illiberal technocratic individualized discourse, this redefinition of emotions in politics is the only way to protest. The conservative values are only fig leaves. The founder of the school, Blanka Teleki, was imprisoned after the Revolution of 1848, in the prison that used to stand here in Liberty Square. How is CEU responding? I can say that there’s enormous support for CEU from inside Hungary — and that’s interesting. She was the founder of a Jewish Women’s Charity Organization. Why are certain monuments there or not there? The material also presents an exercise for students in the class to look at the politics of the archive. They read the oral history of lesbians collected by a woman’s NGO, Labrisz, identified the places, and tried to find pictures. This was a transformative moment for everybody, especially for us here in this academic ivory tower. I said that we have to do something like that for Budapest. The book series is designed for undergraduate Gender Studies students who haven’t worked with gender before, but are interested. A very good pedagogical tool is to ask students to analyze interviews in relation to non-remembering. Right next to the CEU campus in Szabadság tér [Liberty Square], there’s a plaque where the first female secondary school was set up. They had a map with markers that showed where important women were born, where the women’s associations were located, where monuments to women stood. It was also interesting to interact with the Hungarian women who converted to Islam because they had married somebody practicing the religion. That became a place on the feminist map of Budapest. It’s also a form of teaching, and a form of trying to think about social justice in a productive way. So at least there are some new developments in that sense. The erection of certain monuments reflects the fight over the politics of memory. Yes. Stephen’s Basilica. The number of abortions is decreasing, even though health insurance does not cover pills. Nothing will go back to the way it used to be. In using the USC visual history archive in my class, I’m trying to cope with two types of criticism. We usually write in this horribly sophisticated academic language, but this is a textbook that should be read by 19-year-olds with no background in Gender Studies or in academia. One is sexuality. Last year, the conference was in the Caucuses, in Georgia, and there were lots of Russian delegates there. Of course, Orbán was staunchly anti-immigration, and now many reporters are attributing the attempted CEU shutdown to his low tolerance for liberal ideologies. The last round of renaming was introduced by this present government, eliminating everything that had to do with progressive history. The feminist walk was inspired by my dedication to two things: public outreach and alternative teaching methods. A Trump supporter, Orbán also recently inaugurated a class of “border hunters”: militants charged with hunting down illegal immigrants on the shared border with Serbia. One is sexual violence. I wrote this article about the Polypore state with Weronika Grzebalska [a PhD researcher at Graduate School for Social Research, Polish Academy of Sciences] comparing women’s politics in Poland and Hungary. Women had a very particular type of crime, which is denunciation. And during Aryanization, the government moved this statue to the Hungarian Jewish Museum. The Polypore state is working with securitization, familialism, and constructing alternative NGOs that mirror existing institutions. And it probably explains why 80,000 Hungarians protested to protect CEU on the streets of Budapest. These survivors were in the Kindertransport from Czechoslovakia to England, and my student compared the interviews of the subjects, who were children at the time, and noticed that the interviewer — the male interviewer — was interviewing female and male survivors, who had the very same background, differently. I’m using this material to see how digital media is changing the memorialization of the Holocaust, and I’m also using the archive to teach interview techniques. There is the statue of Anna Kéthly, who is the social democratic MP in the Parliament, and the recent statue of Cécile Tormay, who is a controversial, far-right, anti-Semitic woman. They’re organizing teach-ins — all the way from Pécs, which is in the south, to Debrecen and Szeged. The sections include animals, God, laughter, love, matter, nature, space, time, and war — really intriguing topics, through which students can get insight into recent scholarship. It asked their motivation for joining these communities, for becoming Orthodox, for reinventing the Orthodox tradition. The World Congress of Families is an American fundamentalist Christian organization, and, along with the International Organization for the Family, they’ll be meeting here in Budapest from May 25–28, 2017. We have to ask why. The pre-1989 period was non-spiritual, and what’s interesting is that this reenchantment — as opposed to the disenchantment before 1989 — is now offered by religion, not by progressive leftist politics. Interviewers were not asking about sexual violence, and if the interviewees brought up the topic because they wanted to tell their stories, very often the interviewer would silence them. In 2015, the conference was in Salt Lake City, Utah. Nowadays, these sites related to women aren’t marked. If you look at Holocaust educational material, you’ll see that teachers use these interviews as proof of what happened on Kristallnacht or during the Warsaw Uprising. There’s also been a continual zeal for renaming streets since 1989. I found out it was the daughter of the Minister of Culture, who very bravely took his two daughters to the ice skating rink, which hadn’t been available for women. Meanwhile, I’ve found students in Budapest to be extremely interested in education and motivated to study. The period between 1945 and the interviews really influences the narration. It partly explains why the far right is so popular here, because they are not only addressing structural issues, but are also doing it in an emotional way. This also contributes to our society’s polarization. At one point, she dug out a tote bag from a conference of European Jewish Women organized at CEU in 2006. This kind of silencing in interviews has several layers. Have you observed any gendered patterns in the omissions? In one of your articles, I read that there used to be a public statue of the Jewish philanthropist Johanna Bischitz, which has now been taken down. They’re changing political passivity. It was really something to be there. So if you’re looking for somebody who spoke in their interview about chocolate in Prague in 1932, you put that into the search engine, and come up with somebody who, within the 52,000 interviews, mentions chocolate in Prague in 1932. Her progressive work on gender provided a counterpoint to my image of contemporary Hungary, which is ruled by a tight-fisted and “illiberal” regime, whose right-wing views leave little room for feminism. Even Andrássy University, a conservative German school supported by the Christian Democratic Union of Germany, is supporting CEU. They contained documents showing where these women’s associations had been located — sometimes even going back to the end of the 19th century. It felt palpable, the dissatisfaction. This also proved that the stereotype of the passive Islamic religious woman, who stays home taking care of the kids, is unsustainable. The illiberal state has a very different family policy from Christian conservatives. In Europe, as I see it, intersectionality is becoming more important both because of the changing European realities, and because of the Roma population. It was important for us that CEU opened its doors to the refugees. Meanwhile, I know that you’re coming out with another book called Gender: War, from Macmillan. ¤
Stephanie Newman is a Brooklyn-based writer and the founder of Stellia. I mean, you know, in Eastern Europe we don’t have the Occupy movement, or if we do, it’s just 35 people protesting. There’s the statue of Sisi, Emperor Franz Joseph’s wife, and there’s the one to Veres Pálné, the founder of women’s education. That’s why there was an important initiative passed by the European Parliament for the “right to be forgotten.” This right to be forgotten — to be deleted from certain databases — is, interestingly enough, used by some German and Dutch archives to block access to researching Holocaust materials. ¤
STEPHANIE NEWMAN: What impact do you think the Trump administration has had in emboldening Orbán and influencing Hungary’s direction overall? Of course, there is this very strange alliance between the fundamentalist Christians and Russian intellectuals, and now the honorary leader of this latest four-day conference is our Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Intersectionality is an extremely useful methodology, and a political tool — one reflecting in your position as a researcher, in the topic you’re researching, and in the public outreach nature of your work. It sounds pretty stereotypical, but unfortunately that’s the case. What are the power relations that contribute to marking and forgetting certain spaces? And the whole politics of hiding has completely changed with the internet. The different protests are leading somewhere. But it turned out from our quantitative analysis of 55,000 files that these women were, on average, middle aged, professional, married, and very well connected in society. Right. Free abortion was introduced by a decree in Hungary in January 1945, after the massive rapes committed by Red Army soldiers, and it was constantly regulated by decrees until 1990, when the constitution needed a higher-level legal framework. So the 1968-ish kind of protest toolkit is coming back, and that’s heartwarming. Weeks before my visit, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law intended to force the closure of Budapest’s Central European University (CEU), founded by George Soros. My recent book is about female perpetrators during the war, those who had killed and denounced others. And yet, Jewish history in Hungary is so brutal. ANDREA PETŐ: As I see US politics from here, there’s much more resistance through the judiciary and the media than there is in Hungary. When the files were released for research in 1991, I came in and actually opened up the boxes. Women were always asked about their families and caretaking. It’s still there. Intersectionality, as Kathy Davis said, has become a buzzword. Pető was waiting for me in her fifth-floor office, a quiet space filled with memorabilia from past conferences she’s organized. The organizer is the state secretary for Hungary’s Ministry of Human Capital, which covers social affairs, education, and culture. There’s not much political will to reinstate that statue, which I think is a good reflection of the gender politics of this regime — and also those of the different Jewish communities, which are not very progressive either, as far as women’s political activism is concerned. CEU, for example, has a new program in Romani Studies and just appointed two new professors in the discipline. JUNE 7, 2017

WHEN I FIRST read Dr. On the other hand, there is this transnational network of politicians and public intellectuals who are meeting and strategizing. Polls show that if elections were held today, the present government would win easily. I’d love to hear more about it, specifically because you describe the book as “accessible to a curious layperson.” What does that mean from your perspective? There was an interesting master’s thesis I supervised about Jewish women in various communities. I even saw some “CEUropa” flags. I actually walked through one of the protests on May Day in Heroes’ Square. There are several taboo topics within those interviews. At the same time, I was wondering about redefining chronology from a woman’s perspective. They support banning abortion and promoting the family as a heteronormative unit. So I have high hopes that this textbook, with its accessible language, will contribute to the institutionalization of Gender Studies. They were out there with their children, organizing and active. Our illiberal state is a new form of governance, not a backlash. We visit the public statues of women, but there are not that many. How have you engaged with that material? We don’t have mass movements that would politically offer a progressive agenda lived through emotional involvement. I recognized it would be very difficult to do a tour without serious basic research, as we simply do not know our own past. So I think this is a good sign that academic freedom matters to a lot of citizens. Everybody is speaking about intersectionality nowadays. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in LARB, The Millions, Quartz, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. How else have women’s legacies been suppressed? One of the big achievements of the Shoah Foundation’s collection is that they indexed each and every interview, and segmented them. Pető was happy to meet. In a sense, the non-response and ignorance of the state created space for various civil organizations to flourish. I’m a historian working on gender, World War II, and women’s movements. One of my students actually wrote a very interesting paper for my class, comparing the interviews from the same survivor group. I’m using these tours to see how the city as an archive works. This policy changes the whole institutional and legal framework of historical research, and makes the life of the archivist extremely complicated. That said, if you look at the policies in Hungary, you can’t really see any government attempt to change existing reproductive rights. Another is the price of surviving. Polls are actually showing that more than 70 percent of Hungarian women want to protect the right to an abortion. There was a lot of booing from protestors, but in solidarity with the speaker. Of course, you might imagine that the women doing the denouncing were young, under-educated, un-rooted. It puts perpetrators of war crimes in a powerful position. This year, two students from a course I was teaching with Duke University, “Preserving Knowledges of the Past,” created their own interactive map of lesbian spaces in Budapest under communism as their course work. Is this related? Given that you are a scholar working at the intersection of gender and, to an extent, religion, I’m wondering: What does the broader intersectionality discussion looks like in Europe? And I’m not sure I know the answer. If you watch carefully, you might see a segment where you recognize this kind of story, but it would be indexed as something other than rape, perhaps as assault. You can find links to her work on stephanienewman.net, and follow her on writingonglass.com. Dr. Our interview couldn’t have been more timely. We met on a Thursday afternoon in a university building on Zrínyi utca, opposite the sun-drenched St. The first is that the archive is an Americanized version of the Holocaust, impossible to use because of the myriad individual stories that don’t come together. Even outside the Holocaust, if there is a newspaper article from 1965 about a drunk driver in Budapest, it’s possible that you, as a researcher, will not be granted access to the related police file from the archive. So the archive shows how the mediation of memory is very much gendered. Pető is a professor in CEU’s Gender Studies department. Women have roles like “care work.” On the other hand there’s also this young, arts-oriented generation — the driving force behind the Jewish revival here, who had little or no connection to the Jewish establishment. But you’ve done research into female perpetrators during World War II, and I’m wondering what you found. The faculty, staff, and students were collecting donations in shifts. A good example is Piroska Szalmás, who was a musician that led workers’ choirs in interwar Budapest; one street was named after her, and now it’s been renamed, and that makes her invisible. Support for Orbán’s Fidesz party is diminishing — though not by as much as you’d think. “That was a nice time,” she reminisced, acknowledging that holding a similar conference in Budapest today might be difficult. This book is based on the post–World War II trials, and how women were prosecuted as war criminals. Police actually came into the offices of the women’s organizations and boxed everything to archive in the Ministry of the Interior. Let’s say, who was the first woman to go ice skating in City Park? I’ve also been teaching for 26 years, and I’ve recognized that giving lectures is not the most efficient way to teach young students. It’s pretty obvious there are very specific crimes that are committed by women. You own your own past, in a very strange way. There were lots of women who were active in the progressive movement, and they fell victim to these renamings. These are topics that come into play more and more often when we speak about historical events. But the government wouldn’t dare renegotiate how these values will be regulated — with good reason. Yes, Johanna Bischitz — they removed her statue in 1938. There are also the politics of indexing. I was also trying to trace their deeds and their activities before these trials, and it’s pretty obvious that there were gender-patterned crimes. And somebody was speaking. The experience happened in 1944, and these interviews were done in the early 2000s. How did your route take shape, and what is it meant to achieve? The migration crisis changed their position. I know you’ve done extensive work with the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual Archives of Holocaust survivors. No matter that the news was published in a newspaper. So, in this context, we have to reconsider the whole idea of what women might do during crises and wars. As a result, the Visual History Archive recently introduced “rape” as an indexing term. In our System of National Cooperation (name of the document replacing the constitution), life must be protected from conception. But then, for example, there are experiences of sexual violence. At the moment, I think what we have is an acceptable compromise, as far as the practice is concerned, for all parties involved. Behind them aren’t values, but power: economic, social, and symbolic power. It was pretty obvious that these women had felt a need for spiritual discussion. As events would have it, I found myself in the Hungarian capital this spring. In our hour-long conversation, we talked about gender politics in Budapest, the country’s religious revival, and the stakes of living in an illiberal state. Abortion today is more or less freely available. It’s a good educational tool. But every interview is a product of omissions. This was for a book I wrote on the history of women’s associations from 1945–’51. Since you mentioned the Jewish communities, what is that relationship today between Jewish communities and women’s movements in Hungary? Yes, but this “traditional family structure” is not as traditional as you might imagine. So this “mediated-ness” should take the silences into consideration. The second type of criticism is that an interview is always a performance, so you cannot use one to teach what has happened. This is an interdisciplinary handbook in gender, with several sub-sections. In terms of public outreach, one of your initiatives has been creating a feminist walk in Budapest as an alternative way to experience the city’s history. Dr. State-funded universities are signing letters to support us. Under Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the government has encroached on independent media and academic freedom. They have a very powerful association here in Hungary, and they were the driving force behind this kind of civic initiative, because they spoke the language and, being veiled, had more trust from the women refugees. So now there is a map on the Labrisz website, showing lesbian life in the 1960s and ’70s — how these women were remembered, where they met, where they shopped and had fun. And this despite the fact that the interviewer had a prepared interview guide. Dr. Really, the feminist walk is activism. Another parallel between the United States and Hungary is the rising rate of xenophobia. These Hungarian women had two or three cell phones, and they’d be driving from one place to another to coordinate their humanitarian action. One of the achievements of the Hungarian leadership of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) was pushing through the policy that the “right to be forgotten” should not be applied to the Holocaust. The Roma people represent Europe’s largest intellectual and political debt. So, the state secretary responsible for family affairs will be the keynote speaker at this extremely controversial “World Congress of Families.”
In one of your pieces for openDemocracy, you mention the government’s promotion of a more traditional family structure. But there are several who find this kind of spiritual satisfaction within the religious framework, both Jewish and Christian. Having only read about these political developments, I was eager to hear firsthand from an academic living and working in Budapest. Some chapters are written by high-profile experts, who struggled like dogs to make this text accessible. What was the feminist response to the immigration crisis in 2015, as Syrian refugees crossed into Hungary through Serbia? Because of independent media in the United States, there hasn’t been the same kind of takeover as in Hungary. How have your students been interpreting the feminist walk? Women’s associations were banned by the communists from 1945–’51. Our government has the rhetoric of promoting all families, but not the practice. Men were asked about their deeds, agency, and activity. You cannot publish a paper without being intersectional. I was pedagogically and strategically sending some of my interesting student papers to the staff at the Visual History Archive, in which students were saying that the indexing relating to sexual violence was insufficient. What you see is, on the one hand, Jewish communities institutionalizing and setting up social welfare and educational organizations that are very hierarchical. But how intersectionality works as a method of inquiry — that’s what we’re discussing in our new series from Routledge, Advances in Gender Studies and Intersectionality, specifically in the volume Writing Academic Texts Differently.