In February 1989, the northeast Hungarian city of Miskolc gave birth to a remarkable civil rights movement. When a proposal to expel hundreds of Roma from a public housing estate surfaced at the Miskolc city government, dissidents formed an “anti-ghetto committee” and persuaded the local council to scrap the plan. The action later came to be seen as the first successful Roma political mobilization in modern Hungarian history. Particularly noteworthy was the fact that the committee united Roma activists and non-Roma dissidents, marrying the cause of one of Europe’s most persecuted minorities with the struggle against a crumbling communist dictatorship.
Ágnes Daróczi—today Hungary’s most prominent Roma rights activist—cut her political teeth in Miskolc. Yet she finds little inspiration in her memories of those heady days. “I’m afraid if we built this sort of solidarity action now,” she told me in a resigned voice, “we would not overcome.” Daróczi’s sentiments represent more than a veteran activist’s nostalgia for the heyday of Hungarian liberalism. Tensions between the country’s Magyar majority and Roma minority are at an all-time high. In the provinces, real and imagined cigányb u˝ nözés (“Gypsy-crime”) has galvanized neofascistic militias that terrorize Roma communities. At the national level, 17 percent of Hungarians have now embraced the explicitly anti-Roma platform put forth by Jobbik, arguably Europe’s most dangerous far-right party. Widespread dissatisfaction with the economic outcomes of transition and Western integration have relit the smoldering embers of Hungarian nationalism—undermining democratic values and institutions that had only begun to take root.
Last winter, these strong headwinds converged violently on Gyöngyöspata, a sleepy village deep in Hungary’s wine country, about fifty miles northeast of Budapest. The lush, green hills surrounding the village contain a unique mixture of volcanic compounds, creating soil that is at once chalky and soft. That combination, local farmers claim, makes for its especially delectable grapes. Gyöngyöspata is famous for its white wines, made for generations by established vintners with large vineyards and smaller family outfits tending to one-acre plots on an itinerant basis.
Beneath the village’s idyllic surface, however, racial enmity simmers. Some 450 of Gyöngyöspata’s 2,860 residents are Romani, most of whom live on Hegyalja utca (literally, “bottom of the hill road”), a dusty street that draws the village’s western boundary. The next street over, populated almost exclusively by Magyars, serves as the border between the two ethnic communities. The Roma houses are shabbily built—often lacking doors and windows—in sharp contrast to the sturdy if modest Magyar homes that overlook them. A foul smelling, garbage-strewn brook cuts across Hegyalja.
A short walk up from the Roma zone leads to a tiny...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $29.95 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.