In 1983, Ms. Agi Antal was a 19-year-old proud Hungarian (and an unaware Hungarian Jew), excited about being able to leave Hungary to travel to the West. Disembarking from the train in Paris, greeted by her uncle (his sponsorship was the only reason she had been allowed to leave the Eastern Bloc), Agi’s goal was not to re-connect with her relative who had survived the Holocaust, but rather find a job and enjoy Paris in the summertime. With her Uncle’s guidance, Agi found herself in the Jewish quarter of Paris, walked into a store, said she was ‘Juif’, and in her own words: “That was it!” She had re-discovered her Jewish self. It was the first time she realized that being Jewish meant that you belong to a community.
Among many other things, Agi Antal is a seasoned expert on all things Hungary. She has been a tour guide for over 20 years. Completing her undergraduate studies in the field of tourism and becoming a licensed guide in Hungary, Agi fulfilled part of her own family destiny- her father was a tour guide who met her mother when she was late for a group that he was guiding. However, the year she spent in Israel in 1993, that led her to receive an MA in Jewish culture, solidified her newfound destiny and directed what would become a merging of her professional and personal life- sharing the vibrant Jewish life of Hungary that was and that is- with non-Jewish and Jewish groups from around the world. In many ways, Agi’s story is the story of the first generation of Hungarian Jews who reclaimed a Jewish identity that had been compulsorily dormant for many, many years. The advent of Democracy in 1990, and the sense of pride that began to be felt amongst Hungarians in general and amongst Hungarian Jews in particular, have led to a situation in Hungary that would have been unthinkable 25 years ago: ‘Jewish is hip, Jewish is edgy, Jewish is artsy, Jewish is cool.’
Hungary is not only home to the third largest Jewish community in Europe, but it is also home to the largest population of Jews who are historically indigenous to the land. The Jewish community of Budapest is thriving. There are Reform, Neolog, Conservative, Orthodox or Chabad religious options and the Jewish Community Center provides a home base and activities for Jews from all streams. It is the Szarvas Jewish summer camp sponsored by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJJDC) that is accredited with the building of Jewish identity and pride amongst Agi’s son, his friends and an entire new generation of young Jews.
While this is the current reality, according to Agi, the times are indeed ‘a’changin’. For the past three years, and more specifically, the past several months, Hungary has undergone drastic changes to its government, constitution and society. Agi and many of her friends have found themselves in the streets of Budapest, protesting these changes, countering the ant-Semitic voices that are heard, louder than ever. Yet, the voice of protest is less about anti-Semitism, and more about an entire generation’s attempt to reclaim their identity. Agi and her friends were reborn along with the birth of Democracy in their country in the early 1990’s. It was this rebirth that drove them to reclaim their Hungary and their Judaism.
Agi shares that they have fought long and hard to create for themselves a strong Jewish identity. They continue to fight to instill that sense of identity in their children (and are succeeding). As we conclude our interview, Agi says that she can’t wait for us to visit so she can share with us, not only the medieval glory of the Castle District, the historic Heroes’ Square, the beauty and command of the serpentine Danube, but also so she can share the reason she finds her Jewish identity intertwined with the history of this place. It is an identity that stretches from the 3rd century CE, through her grandmother who perished in Auschwitz, and Raul Wallenberg who saved her uncle in Paris, to her father who died before democracy became a reality, and the moment she became a Bat Mitzvah alongside her son. Summing up she declares: “NU, so when are you coming!”