Leslie Mándoki: If Jews have to defend themselves, there’s a big problem

Leslie Mándoki fled from Budapest to Germany in 1975 to escape the communist regime in Hungary. A musician and music producer, he has worked with several world star musicians, including Bonnie Tyler, Engelbert, Lionel Richie, Joshua Kadison, Jack Bruce, Phil Collins and Gil Ofarim.

In an exclusive interview with Neokohn, Mándoki talks about how he sees the situation of Jews in Germany and Hungary, what he thinks of the migration crisis, his memories of the Eurovision Song Contest in Jerusalem, what he talked to Imre Kertész about, and whether he knows that a Yiddish remake of a Dschingis Khan song has become a hit in Orthodox Jewish communities around the world.

You wrote a post on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day, in which, in addition to remembering the victims, you said that the Jewish community in Hungary lives in safety and Jews can walk around wearing a kippah without any issue. In contrast, this is not the case in Germany. If I remember correctly, in Germany, the President himself said that it would be better if Jews did not wear kippahs because of the security situation. What made you write your post?

I would start at the root of this topic. I’m a Christian guy, but I live as an atheist because if I look at things based on my own ethics, the Catholic Church has gone after the wrong people quite a few times in history. Even as a 10-year-old child, when communism was still rampant, I experienced this myself in the confessional, unfortunately, when I complained about the dictatorship.

Unfortunately, my relationship with the Catholic Church was not so good, starting in my childhood, which was then only confirmed for me here in Germany when I arrived as a refugee without knowing a word of German and was rejected by the Catholic refugee organization because I had long hair and a beard.

However, it is important to note that my father raised me according to the notion that it is the duty of Christians to protect Judaism — and that the Shoah was a rupture of civilization.

My father has always said that it is not the job of our Jewish friends to defend themselves, because if the situation has already become such that Jews have to defend themselves, then there is something very wrong and civilization is on the wrong track. I was raised that way, in an area not far from the Dohány Street Synagogue. I had many Jewish friends. Some were still strong believers, Orthodox, and some were atheists, and, of course, some were the children of communists. My first big love was also a Jewish girl.

Even later, I have always felt that for me, as an artist who has a voice that is heard to some extent, I mean here in Germany, I have a responsibility to speak out against antisemitism anytime I see the need to do so.

What confirmed this view for you later on?

I also raised my children this way. When Imre Kertész  came to a concert eight years ago, we talked a lot afterward. He said, “Laci listen, I know you’re a very influential man here in Germany, the chancellor is listening too, there’s weight to what you say. Do you know that in Brussels and Paris, a Jew can no longer take to the streets in a kippah because he is not safe? Be careful that this does not happen even once in Berlin!”

Did that have a big impact on you?

I took what Imre said very seriously and considered this a task for me to take on. Because it’s about an attitude to life. It thus makes sense, of course, that I was one of the founding members of the Simon Peres Society here in Munich. I also helped, for example, with the project of rebuilding the Munich Synagogue. This was successful, and we recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of the new building. But going back to your question, on Holocaust Memorial Day, when I went home from the studio, late at night, as usual, Charlotte Knobloch, the former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, was on the news telling her story, which I have heard from her many times; we are good friends. I thought, we shouldn’t be facing this break with civilization every year, that civilization was trampled underfoot, but each and every day. When I came to Germany as an artist fleeing communism in 1975, the perpetrators were even then walking on the streets. The baker, the salesman, the doctor. Anyone who was a little older than, say, 20 was suspicious.

How long could you look at the world in such a way?

I was very lucky. I was in a refugee camp for three weeks, then a family took me and my friends from Pest in for a couple of weeks. I didn’t speak English very well yet, and I didn’t speak German at all. I saw that my host’s ankle and right arm were stiff, and, quite indignantly, I asked him what he was doing during World War II.

Asking such a question in 1975 Germany may not have been such a good idea.

Well, you can imagine, there was absolute silence. Then, my host asked me why I was interested. And I said, with my still weak English at the time, because I thought the Holocaust was a rupture of civilization.

Had this been articulated in you so early on in your life?

From a very young age, yes. My father, who was anti-communist and anti-racist, made this very emphatic. So in my worldview, the Holocaust is not a Jewish issue, but a matter for all of humanity.

How did your host respond?

He told his story until six in the morning. He said how he had become a Nazi and fought on the Russian front; he had believed in the idea. His post-war “awakening” led him to go to Israel with his wife years later and plant a tree there in memory of the victims.

So he repented his sins?

He said he wasn’t part of the whole thing, but it was just a coincidence that he wasn’t sent to some death camp. He told me he would have gone there, too. He said the social pressure was so strong that everyone was drawn in. And, of course, he not only regretted this but also became active in the fight against antisemitism.

It is to his credit to have confessed this.

He also said that no one here in Germany will ever tell me that. He was right. This man worked at the tax office before. He recounted how many years it took him after the war to realize what an inhuman horror the whole thing was and to ask himself how it could have ever happened.

This was an incredible experience for me. I saw the evolution of this man. And it was also a key moment that helped enable me to set down some roots in this country.

So, you’ve seen the interview with Ms. Knobloch.

Yes. She told the story of a 30-year-old Jewish lady in Berlin who had had some kind of family celebration, photos of which she posted on Facebook; the police reached out to her, very kindly, telling her not to post such photos because doing so was life-threatening, and they said she would receive police protection. And then I thought to myself, Jesus, after 76 years, here we are again…

What is the cause of this hatred in Germany and in Europe?

I think it has three root causes. Although these are not all of the same strength, they are still distinct.

There has always been a left-wing, anti-capitalist, intellectual antisemitism in Germany that philosophers would say is not dangerous because intelligent people would never hurt others.

Just a bunch of hot air, navel-gazing?

Yes, but it should be taken seriously. This is a socialist line, often anti-Israel and anti-American. In my view, criticizing George Soros is perfectly legitimate. There is nothing wrong with criticizing big short-sellers, casino capitalism. It has nothing to do with antisemitism.

But supporting unrestricted and uncontrolled immigration, on the other hand, poses the greatest threat to Jewish communities if we do not enlighten immigrants that antisemitism has no place here.

What is the second kind of antisemitism?

It’s easy because neo-Nazis are very visible. They are well defined. However, I think they should be dealt with differently. And this is where I disagree with almost everyone. I don’t think it’s the job of the police to protect a Jewish kindergarten; it’s the job of the 82 million German citizens who live here. Seventy-six years after the Shoah, a society must be built so that there is no need for police protection. If a policeman is standing in front of a synagogue, or a military unit, or an armored jeep, then society is very much on the wrong track. I think protecting synagogues is a social task.

What do you mean, that neo-Nazis should be dealt with differently so that they don’t act in anger but via dialogue instead?

I am of the opinion that we need to convince and win everyone who turns against humanity. Take, for example, these terrible East German parties, where you find antisemitism. We, the urban, intellectual, academic, cosmopolitan layer of society should go there, go to them and ask: Are you really afraid of me? Did I hurt you somehow? Maybe we have to get out on stage and tell these kids, “Pay attention, this is what the real enemy looks like”? We just need to be a little braver.

I think a lot of people out there could be won back. Humanity, morality can serve as a strong argument. Antisemitism must be confronted, actively, with the power of morality.

Have you ever tried something like this?

It’s a theoretical conversation, but I think we should talk, discuss this with them. A good 80% of them could be turned around if we simply listened to their fears. If we took it seriously and debated with them, many of them could be driven back to the middle of society. But we don’t talk to them. We crowd them out, so there are more and more of them. This is awful!

And what is the third type?

Of course, Muslim immigrants. This is a very real problem, a serious task, and not just from a Jewish point of view. This is a phenomenon in Germany, much more so than in Hungary; in Germany, it is a social challenge, a serious task. Covid is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. In Germany today, we do not dare talk about the fact that there are significantly more Muslims among the victims of the pandemic; they end up in the intensive care unit of hospitals because they repeatedly do not follow the government measures. They do not wear a mask, or are uninformed, or simply do not care There is a social consensus here that we should not talk about this. Such a taboo does not solve the problem.

I see this differently as a former refugee. The German culture of inclusion must be a part of some kind of awareness program about the value system here.

I always try to explain the Hungarian spirit to the Germans and the German soul to the Hungarians in such a way that, for example, we certainly agree on both sides that we want parliamentary democracy. However, in the German parliament, had it been asked by the government, approximately 88% would have fought in 2015 for completely uncontrolled and completely unrestricted immigration. In Hungary, it was just the opposite, where some 80-92% were against immigration. It must be respected that one people wants it one way, and another nation wants it another way. We respect the fact that Hungarian society is a Judeo-Christian society, as defined by the prime minister and as shown by the 400-meter distance between the Budapest Basilica and the Great Synagogue. In Germany, it is different.

Photo: Facebook

Is there no possibility of there being some sort of historical caution or sense of responsibility in Germany to avoid accidentally ruining things now, as we ruined things 76 years ago? Do people not think, if we spoil this now, will we be the evil of the world again?

This is a nice approach, but too naive. I see this differently. I think we have to respect that Germans have decided [on the issue of immigration] in their own way; however, we also have to state that Germans do not have a say in how Hungarians decide, and vice versa. This is a national decision.

In Germany, we should have told the immigrants from the very beginning that we see them with great love, but here, in this country, we do not tolerate antisemitism, women are on an equal footing, we do not tolerate homophobia. Just as you can’t go to the beach half-naked in a Muslim country, in northern Germany, 80% of women go into the sea without a bikini top because that’s the way it is here.

We need to respect each other’s culture. I would like to define German culture in such a way that there is not even a square millimeter of antisemitism, hatred or homophobia here, and equality for women is natural. If we were to say this to all immigrants on the first day they arrived, of course, in a respectful manner, things would turn out differently.

So, adapt to the rules of the game, the handbook.

Exactly. Here are the rules. And if you don’t like our rules, we will not tolerate that. However, this didn’t happen. I was the only one who wrote an article about this in 2015 and everyone looked at me as if I didn’t know what I was talking about.

Those who come here have been invited, but we must not forget that they come from an area where antisemitism unfortunately has a tragic culture; they say women are not equal and consider homophobia a normal thing. This needs to be addressed. But before anyone misunderstands, this is not an anti-immigration statement on my part, and, of course, I’m not saying that those who grew up in such a culture are awful people. Immigration must be decided by each nation freely and independently. Everything must be said in a voice of respect, but we in Europe have a historic responsibility in the fight against antisemitism.

Based on this, how do you judge the Hungarian government’s immigration policy? You mentioned that there is a Hungarian approach to stopping or shutting down immigration and a German approach.

About this, a very famous and very wonderful genius friend of mine, a Hungarian Jewish artist, said that 80 years ago, the Germans came to us Hungarians and told us who not to live with, and then 80 years later, the Germans come again and tell us who we have to live with. They’re both bad because it’s our country, we decide, he said.

By the way, Ferenc Demjén said this. We were both guest performers at the 70th birthday concert of our mutual friend, poet and songwriter Charlie, and shared a dressing room, where he told me this.

I believe that the Hungarian people elect the Hungarian parliament, and the Hungarian parliament decides, as is customary in a representative democracy, whether or not they want immigration. It’s not that complicated. There is no need to make such a very intellectual European ethical issue out of this. This is a national decision.

So if someone doesn’t like this, you can express your opinion every four years, right?

Exactly. Of course, we know there is a lot of trouble all over the world. But there is this beautiful Hungarian program, Hungary Helps, that goes to where the trouble is and tries to help; they build a school or a hospital or make the area more livable. Not everyone has to leave; because leaving your country is extremely difficult. Of course, it was for me as well when I left Budapest during communism. This is not something a man does with pleasure; it is very painful.

Do you not feel that the Germans are opening their borders out of a sense of responsibility?

Look, first of all, they still have to be told, even 76 years after the horrors, that for historical reasons, you can’t even tell a Jewish joke here. So in New York, you can joke about a table of six people, an Italian, an Irishman, a Jew and a Christian; you can even joke about the fact that it’s better to have a Jewish musician negotiate with a record company than an Italian. Even in Budapest, you can tell very good Jewish jokes; my Jewish friends tell the best ones. There was, for example, my friend Ephraim Kishon, God rest his soul.

A big favorite of mine. His book is right next to me.

I have a great story about him. We once spoke at a reception in Berlin, and a young German journalist came along and asked us about the strange Hebrew we were speaking. We told him it was not Hebrew, but Hungarian. This journalist then told Kishon that he’s the highest-selling German writer. Kishon replied by saying he’s not a writer, just someone who takes note of things. He said, joking and smiling, that he had kept his parents’ apartment in Budapest’s 6th district and sometimes goes there around November, when there are few tourists; he sits in a cafe and listens to the idle chatter, then writes it down. We had a good laugh at that.

At the Jerusalem Eurovision Song Contest, you got fourth place. What memories does that bring back, or how do you think of Jerusalem? There’s not much to read about this.

There were hellishly wild things happening around that time. In the German parliament, the Bundestag, one member of the FDP wanted to prevent Dschinghis Khan from participating in the Eurovision in Jerusalem.

This was a few years after you emigrated to Germany, right?

Yes. Dshingis Khan was a hit on Israeli military radio. Accordingly, we were called to a military ship. I have damn good stories about that time. I couldn’t go to Hungary then because I was convicted of crossing the border illegally in 1975, but right next to the Hilton where we were staying in Jerusalem was Goulash Corner; there was a Hungarian bookstore there, where I bought all the classics in Hungarian. I filled up three suitcases.

I have another great story from our stay there. I have never been sick in my entire life, but at that time, I had some kind of intestinal infection and had been prescribed, in Germany, a syrup that tasted horrible and could only be diluted in milk. So, I ordered a glass of milk and a club sandwich there, at the Hilton in Jerusalem, which they said was not allowed.

You mean, having meat with milk.

Yes. I said to them, but kids, can’t you give this to a non-Jewish guy? So, they contacted the rabbi of the hotel. By that time I spoke English better, but then I noticed that he had a damn Hungarian accent. Soon, we came to an understanding and had a good laugh. The rabbi told me that two waiters would come with two trays, one with milk and the other with my meat sandwich. We talked all night, me and the rabbi, like two guys from Pest; I will never forget it. I stayed after Eurovision and visited Israel; my Hungarian Jewish friends took me to a few kibbutzim, and get this, I even met a beautiful classmate of mine from elementary school at one of them.

I don’t know if you know this, but two songs from your previous band, Dschingis Khan, were remade by two Hasidic pop singers. One, “Yidden, Yidden kimt aheim” (“Jews, Jews, Come Home”), was released in Yiddish by Mordechai Ben David, also known as the King of Religious Jewish Music; and Michoel Streicher, a pop singer of Hungarian descent, remade “Moskau” under the title of “Our forever.” I should note that Mordechai Ben David’s mother is also Hungarian, from the town of Makó.

I didn’t know that. Very interesting!

What are you working on now? What inspires you?

I think creation is a very important life force for man. I am always interested in tomorrow, the future. If we had met when I was 16 and you had asked me what I wanted to do in life, I would have told you I wanted to be a poet at 12 and a painter at 13; but my father told me to be a musician. Because talent needs to be handled with care, it is a responsibility. Of course, I still want to be a bit of a poet, and I also paint a little bit, but I’m basically a musician. If you had asked 16-year-old Laci Mándoki, who lived a stone’s throw from the big synagogue, I would have said I was interested in politics. Not party politics, but what can be moved, as an artist, responsibly. When I left home in 1975, it was the censorship that was confusing and the fact that I could not travel. And the lack of freedom of speech. A few decades have passed since then, and I am still preoccupied with music and my audience, playing the same music I played when I was 18, living in humility, in the service of music.

You actively politicize.

Look, the Bavarian Prime Minister [ed. note: Markus Thomas Theodor Söder] Is an old friend of mine who recently became president of the CSU, but Armin Laschet [ed. note: 11th prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, head of the CDU in North Rhine-Westphalia], is also a close friend of mine, so I feel like I have a responsibility to build bridges where cracks appear. I still remain, as you can hear [from my accent], a guy from Pest, and I am, even if I have a German passport and my studio is at Lake Starnberg. My children grew up a mile and a half from here, on the lakeshore, but I am also a guy from Pest who, thanks to my teachers and my parents, has been able to achieve the 72 gold records I’ve made over the years in America, England and Asia, and especially in Germany.

And what are you doing now?

I am currently working on a remake of Béla Bartók’s “Hungarian Pictures.”

What inspires me now is that, as we both know, Béla Bartók wrote one or two rather serious works during fascism in the 1930s, including “Hungarian Pictures.” About 16-17 years ago when I was the music director for the “Fifty Years of Rock” show, which was seen by fourteen million people on German TV every Saturday night, were many famous musicians, such as Bobby Kimball from Toto, Jack Bruce of Cream, Jon Lord and similar greats.

Where did this idea come from?

One night during the preparations, Jon Lord, the famous Hammond organist and formerly from Deep Purple, and Greg Lake from Emerson, Lake and Palmer, found me and asked if I would be interested in doing this Bartók piece, “You’re still a guy from Pest,” they said. They couldn’t touch this piece before because they didn’t get the rights, but now the rights have expired.

This is the new project. We are working with 35 stars from all over the world.

Bartók is able to unite musicians. Plus, I think there is a great need again to make his works known so that we can use them to speak out against racism. So I grabbed the piece, wrote a rock song or two with my little girl, and managed to connect the world through these superstars.

Music as a universal link?

Racism, pandemics, crises all call for a global response. I have always felt that musicians have a serious responsibility in society to raise our voices against greed and in support of family, tolerance, humanity and a work-based society, and against antisemitism.

Bartók is highly respected in America, and Bartók’s name and music have enormous strength there. In this project, I am working with Chinese, Japanese, Indian and other musicians. We all play in different parts of the world, and then here, next to Munich, in my studio at Lake Starnberg, the work comes together. 

Everyone plays their own part of sheet music, if I understand correctly.

Exactly. Everyone has their part, and I tie them all together here. I’ve always been a hardworking musician because I felt I owed respect to my audience. I try to do all of this with humility.

Do you ever have time to take a break?

I live by Lake Starnberg, the studio is a mile and a half from my house. We live on the waterfront and I have a boathouse at the end of the plot; I often go out on the lake. Due to the location of the place, we are higher up, as if we were on Kékestető [ed. Note: the highest point of Hungary’s tallest mountain]; sometimes, I can see the clouds sitting on the water and you often see the surrounding mountain peaks in the sunshine. You can swim in the lake here in the summer, while the mountain tops are still snowy. When I came back from Los Angeles 25 years ago, I found this place. I decided that my kids would grow up here in this little paradise. By the way, my children speak Hungarian as if they were born in Budapest.

Is your wife Hungarian?

She was born here, in Munich. Her mother and father are ‘56-ers [ed. note: left Hungary after the 1956 Revolution]. She also speaks Hungarian perfectly.

As a concluding remark, let me once again state my opinion on the Hungarian government and the situation, that is, on the issue of antisemitism: The Hungarian prime minister is leading a country where there is no need for a police officer in front of synagogues. Meanwhile, Angela Merkel, the Belgian prime minister and the French president are the leaders of countries where synagogues need not only a police officer but an armored car. And that, a little over 70 years after the Holocaust, is a huge shame.

The fight against antisemitism in Germany should not be a job for the police but a saintly task for the 82 million Germans living here.