ESR 1 Blog January 2022: Gabor Erlich

If you are one of those avid readers of the Feinart-blogs, you might know that this time I planned to write about my research-trip to Poland, where Sophie and I had the privilege to spend a couple of days at the beginning of December to prepare for our upcoming secondment at the Biennale Warszawa, which – kudos to Kuba Szreder – was not only of great importance but also a very exciting journey. You are right, I was hoping to give you some details of that journey as well as being prepared to inform you about my most recent academic achievements, that is, getting into writing and submitting a relatively large piece for my upcoming ‘annual progress review’.

I truly did intend to cover these two topics, until this morning when I heard the shocking news that “brada” Jenő Setét, the Roma-Hungarian civil rights activist and freedom fighter has left us last night. He was only fifty years old.

Jenő Setét was born in 1972 in Sárospatak, a town on the North-Eastern edge of Hungary. He grew up in a working-class family, which lived in the ’panel block’, the par excellent environment of ‘existing Socialism’. Well, it was for the white folks, really. Most of the Roma-Hungarian were forced to live in the settlement(s) -as he remembered in a recent interview he gave to the Left youtube-channel, ‘Partizán’ (which unfortunately exists only in Hungarian, so I am not going to link it here). In other words, this is to say that historical ‘Socialism’ in Hungary failed to achieve its basic task: to create a society without racism.

As a ‘panelproli’ (a member of the proletariat living in one of the housing estate blocks), Setét received an integrated education, meaning that he was not sent to ‘schools for kids with special needs’, the legal form of institutional Roma segregation in Hungary and the region, but could receive education together with his ‘white’ peers. This fact alone made him ‘luckier’ than most of his fellow Roma-Hungarians, who till this very day face segregation both in terms of residence, and education. His education, though, was not a shield against racism, which (as he recalls in the same interview) he had faced since the age of 11, coming from the top of the hierarchy, from his headmaster. His luck was that he was able to participate in a retreat for Roma-Hungarian kids, organised by a very small group of Roma-Hungarian intellectuals. It is there, at the age of fourteen, where he is introduced to the cultural heritage as well as the language of the Romani People, which he, being a ‘panelproli’ was not able to speak before. He described the importance of this summer camp as: ‘From that on, I knew my mission. I was put on the rails of this struggle right there, at my age of fourteen, and I have been on the many different tracks of those rails ever since.’.

In my opinion, he was one of the locomotives of this network. Jenő Setét was one of the founding members of the Roma association ’Phralipe’ (Siblinghood, a non-gendered version of, I guess, what would be brotherhood in English) in his teens, and in 1995, he became a member of the Roma Civil Rights Foundation where he worked till 2010. In 2011, he organised a country-wide campaign that sought to mobilise all Roma-Hungarians to register their ethnicity in the upcoming national census. The activists of this campaign later formed an association called ’Idetartozunk! Egyesulet’ (Webelonghere!). Jenő Setét established and organised the events of the national ’Roma Pride Day’. Besides his main occupation as a freedom fighter, he was also a public intellectual and an advisor to many progressive thinkers, organisers and even politicians.

To me, Jenő Setét is, and will always be, one of the few foundational masters.

As some of you already know, I grew up in a village of 2000 inhabitants called Ádánd, located in Somogy county just under Lake Balaton. This is where I went to elementary school (in the Hungarian system, pupils attend this institution between their age of 6-14), where the most influential teacher – one with a large white male body – physically punished kids on a daily basis during his entire career of over 40 years in the school. He also happened to be my classmaster. In his despotic system, everyone got beaten up, we all knew that it was unavoidable, so did our parents, in some cases, our grandparents, were all ’taught’ by him. For this very reason, this became the shared normality of the villagers. One thing this teacher never missed out on was to execute double or triple punishment on the Roma-Hungarian students, often vocally admitting that ’their kind needs this treatment’. As a guy who did pretty well in school, I was seldom the victim of such punishments, and never experienced ridicule based on skin-colour, ethnicity or culture. And since that racist ridiculing was the norm set by the most important intellectual of the village, we all learned to laugh at such incidents. When I say we, I actually refer to the entire population of the village, since, given the lack of social mobility, most of those born there remained there. After that I went on to high school in the neighbouring town where my headmaster was not an outright racist, but he was an ultraconservative nationalist, who sometimes delivered speeches to his pupils with a sword held up in the air, mostly preparing us for some upcoming national holiday.

Until the age of 19, this was the atmosphere around me; and, given the lack of internet access at the time, these ideas shaped my cognitive adolescence.

Long after that, around the age of 23, my actual political awakening began when I got into art school and had the chance to get to value different attitudes, ones that argued for tolerance and equality instead of the supremacy of ’decent, white, real Hungarians’. It was then when I was introduced to the activism, ideas and the suggestively engaged personality of Jenő Setét. His life’s work made this world a better place, and points Hungary in the right direction -whether by criticising the government or supporting the struggle against institutional racism, social injustice and fighting in defence of the least privileged members of our society. Personally, I would be way less of a person without him. REST IN POWER, ’BRADA’!

Privacy Preferences
When you visit our website, it may store information through your browser from specific services, usually in form of cookies. Here you can change your privacy preferences. Please note that blocking some types of cookies may impact your experience on our website and the services we offer.