Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Survivor wary of ‘velvet totalitarianism’

    Survivor wary of ‘velvet totalitarianism’

  • APRIL 02, 2014 12:00AM
John Furedy, members of whose family died in the Holocaust, believes freedom of speech should not be constrained by laws. Picture: Renee Nowytarger Source: News Limited

John Furedy with his father Bela in Hungary in 1941.
John Furedy with his father Bela in Hungary in 1941. Source: News Limited

John Furedy with his mother, Dusi, around 1942.
John Furedy with his mother, Dusi, around 1942. Source: News Limited

John Furedy, members of whose family died in the Holocaust, believes freedom of speech should not be constrained by laws. Picture: Renee Nowytarger Source: News Limited
A FEW years after most members of his extended family were exterminated in World War II, John Furedy sat in a classroom as teachers in Hungary, then a part of the Soviet bloc, asked what the children’s parents had talked about over the breakfast table.
He was young, seven or eight, but the scars of one regime lingered and he was cautious of revealing too much lest he say something “wrong” or incriminating. His mother, Dusi, had protected him from the worst of it but the memories were searing and the convictions forged from them absolute and well-informed.
“I remember censoring myself and I remember thinking, ‘This is not right, I am not free,’ ” he said from his Sydney home.
A boyhood scepticism of powerful agendas built an unassailable view that speech was better when it was free, even for Holocaust deniers, and led to Professor Furedy this week backing proposed revisions to the­ Racia­l Discrimination Act.
The Holocaust survivor came out in support of Attorney-General George Brandis to halt what he calls the creep of “velvet totalitarianism”, under which thought and speech are criminalised.
“The best thing my parents ever did for me was take me to Australia in 1949, but I have
watched Australians take their freedoms for granted,” he said.
“There has been what I call a velvet totalitarianism creeping in. I call it that because the punishments are less severe but people still try to censor themselves and each other.
“They do it on an unconscious level. There can be no contest of ideas if we go too far down this path.”
Professor Furedy, 74, graduated from the University of Sydney in 1963 and eventually settled in Canada, where he worked as a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and found a case that would test, and ultimately confirm, his views on free speech.
Notorious Holocaust-denier and anti-Semite Ernst Zundel was in the midst of a deportation battle with the Canadian government when Professor Furedy wrote a letter to the National Post newspaper defending his right to free speech. “I have long been disgusted by Zundel’s publicly stated, anti-Semitic opinions,” he wrote in 2005.
“Nevertheless, as one who has had first-hand experience of ... ‘fear societies’ in the form of the Nazi and Soviet tyrannies, I have, since 1987, defended, in print, Zundel’s right to publicly state his disgusting opinions because I did not want to see a Canadian shift towards the fear end of the free-fear continuum.”
The same shift, he says, could happen in Australia and Senator Brandis is right to correct it.
It’s a view, he concedes, with which others in the Jewish community have strongly disagreed. The Australian has previously published reports of Holocaust survivors panning the proposed legislation. Ernie Friedlander said that even though he agreed with the principle of free speech he could not support a revision to the act that “removed protections from minorities”.
Professor Furedy broke down yesterday as he recalled the distinctive, unpredictable course of fate during World War II that led to many of his extended family being slain while his father was spared.
“I love freedom, but I hate its abusers,” he said.
His father and two uncles were sent to different labour camps. The uncles perished somewhere in Ukraine. His father, Bela, survived only because a German colonel’s instincts to win the war were greater than his instincts to kill Jews.
“He told my father if you work like a soldier, you’ll be fed like a soldier — and he was,” he said.
Professor Furedy said free speech wouldn’t have saved the Jewish people under Hitler — “there were so many other factors at play” — but was adamant it was the best way to defeat bigotry.
“The only protection against stupid speech is better speech,” he said.
“I have a feeling Brandis will water down the proposals, but I think as they are, he is sound. And he was correct to say we have the right to be bigots. Of course we do. And the rest of us will respond to bigots with mockery, ridicule and argument.”
He said he did not believe minority groups needed special protections, even where they had to fight back with ideas against a powerful person with a stronger platform.
“The distinction should be made between acts and words,’’ he said. “I do not support the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign because that is an act that has a harmful, tangible effect.
“It is fundamentally anti-Semitic and makes me ashamed to be an alumnus of (Sydney) University.”
As a boy hiding in a ghetto in Hungary, Professor Furedy narrowly avoided being picked up and put on a train to Auschwitz himself.
“The regime which replaced that was just as bleak,’’ he said. “These things always happen gradually, step by step. We must fight every step.”

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