What lies beneath… Hungary’s shameful denial of its Holocaust?   Leave a comment

I was given a desk diary by one of the Hungarian schools I work in last August. I was grateful for this, as I sometimes find it difficult to find a school year diary, and also have difficulty keeping up with all the national days and commemorations which interrupt the teaching year. After eight years teaching here, albeit in three spells since 1990, I am just about coming to terms with most of these, but still sometimes find myself planning a week’s English language teaching only to find the day before that there’s a two-hour commemoration ceremony which cancels a series of lessons in the middle of the day. The latest example of this was the Hungarian Culture Day commemorating the birthday of the National Anthem on the 22nd January. So, I was really grateful to note that ‘Holocaust Memorial Day’ was also listed in the diary. Since teaching in France for a year ten years ago now, I have always planned special days for this day, on the 27th January. I have to be sensitive about this, because I am a history teacher as well as an English teacher, but in France every lesson on that day had, by law, to have some connection with the Holocaust, whether arts, language, science or humanities. In any case, I always hated it in Britain when schools handed over the responsibility for Remembrance Day assemblies to the history department. The act of remembering war is a matter for everyone on an equal basis, I argued, whereas the task of historian is to chronicle, narrate and interpret wars alongside other past events. When a French student asked me why we had to listen to the painful testimony of Spielberg’s witnesses of the Shoah, I gave two answers. “Because it is a requirement of your government that we remember, and neither you, your parents, nor I have any memory of these events” and “because we all need to decide for ourselves how significant these events were in the last century and this one. If we don’t read or hear the first-hand evidence, how can we decide?” I’m not sure that she agreed with either reason, but that was not the point. The point was that this was, as a French citizen, even more of an obligation on her than it was on me. To be fair, she raised her objection properly with me in cameo at the end of the lesson. Had she protested at the beginning or middle, I could not have sent her out unless she reported sick. Otherwise, I would have been breaking French law.

In the 1990s, after the fall of ‘Goulash Communism’ and the end of the Warsaw Pact, I came to understand why people were still reluctant to talk about the Holocaust, though some, like the villagers in Apostag, were keen to have their stories recorded, a process which I finally completed last year. However, I was surprised to find, when I returned to teach here in 2011-12 that nothing was done to mark HMD in either the Reformed Church School I taught in, or in my current school. Indeed, when I dealt with the topic as part of the exam topic theme of ‘national days, celebrations and commemorations’, I encountered what I can only describe as thinly-veiled hostility. This has not been the case in my current Catholic School, where I showed the staff the materials about Vali Rácz, a Catholic who hid the Jews. This led to an interesting discussion (in Hungarian as well as English) about both the events of 1944/45 and the reason why HMD is not marked in Hungarian schools. This year, apparently, there is an official state commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of ‘the German Occupation’ which began on 19th March 1944. There is to be a new museum opened in Budapest, apparently, and schools will be encouraged to take pupils to this. I felt reassured and encouraged by this, as I, like many Hungarians, had been feeling dismayed at the insidious rehabilitation of proven anti-Semites and fascist collaborators like Admiral Horthy, Hungary’s Regent at the time, a statue to whom has recently been unveiled by a Reformed Church in Budapest. However, when I the read the following articles in The Budapest Sun yesterday I became even more depressed about the Hungarian political and religious leadership’s apparent continued denial of their roles in the deportation of Jews and Gypsies. I have already written about how the country became gradually anti-Semitic and then openly fascist in the period 1936-44, and about the enthusiastic mass participation of the Hungarian Gendarmerie and Army in the deportations from the countryside in the Spring and Summer of 1944, while Horthy and his cohorts were still in control. I, and others, have also continually published the evidence of the Hungarian government’s knowledge of and collaboration with the plan and orders of Adolf Eichmann, together with the national leaderships of the Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic Churches.

When I point these facts out, many Hungarians refer to ‘difficult times, difficult decisions.’ I point out that it is not my role, as a historian, to judge people, especially those no longer living, and that, as a British historian, I am mindful of the difference between the war-time experience of Hungary and that of Britain. However, I am also mindful of the difference between the way that the black-shirts were dealt with in Britain in 1936, by having their uniformed marching banned, and the way they were encouraged by the introduction of anti-Semitic measures under the Horthy regime both in the late thirties, but also from as early as 1920, when fascist activity in Germany was limited to two quite insignificant putsches. Encouraged by the ‘opinion’ article published by an American academic in Budapest, I feel it is high time for me to lose my traditional reserve. After all, the Holocaust was an international event, but one in which could not have happened to the Hungarian Jews and Roma without the willing preparation and participation of the Hungarian state and churches, just as so many of the Hungarian Jews in Budapest were also saved by the brave actions of their fellow citizens, whether acting out of true patriotism, religious belief or simple humanity.

Here are yesterday’s articles. After you read them, it may be that you will want to consider the author’s call, whether living in Hungary or elsewhere, to boycott a ‘commemoration’ which is at least meaningless and at worst both amoral and ahistorical, especially when black-shirted fascists are again being permitted to march through the capital parading their support for the Nazi ‘heroes’ of the Battle of Budapest of 1944/45.     

Human Resources Minister Zoltán Balog has expressed regret over the decision of Hungary’s major Jewish association not to participate in the government’s Holocaust 2014 programmes until further notice. “I regret that they have made this decision and that the case had progressed in this direction since the first minute,” Balog told state news agency MTI. The Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (‘Mazsihisz’) said on Sunday that it would only take part in the official Holocaust Memorial Year programmes if the government stops plans to erect a monument to the victims of the 1944 German occupation, along with two other conditions. Balog said all the three issues raised by ‘Mazsihisz’ deserve attention but refusing to conduct a dialogue reflects short-term thinking. “If we do nothing else but turn our back to one another, the situation will not change in the future either,” he said. Hungary’s official position had remained unchanged since 1990, the minister said. The Hungarian state had played an unquestionable role in the deportation and annihilation of Hungarian Jews, and the German state had an unquestionable role too. Responsibility could not be divided. Balog reiterated that the government is not planning to erect a monument to the Nazi occupation but to the victims of it.


Why everyone should boycott official 2014 Holocaust commemorations

Imagine the White House chief of staff stating the following at a press conference after a significant meeting about a highly controversial issue with the leading representatives of American Jewry: “The President will address all of our fellow Americans as well as our Jewish citizens next week.” It does not take a lot of imagination to envision the firestorm of criticism that would follow such a division of the American people into real Americans versus Jewish citizens of America.

David Mandler, Ph.D.

Yet, this is precisely what János Lázár, the Minister of State for the Prime Minister’s office, said after the unsuccessful round-table meeting with leading Hungarian Jewish organisations. Of course, he was not talking about fellow Americans but rather “fellow Hungarian countrymen” and “our Jewish citizens”. Perhaps at other times this statement would have drawn more fire from liberal Hungarians and Hungarian Jews alike. At this time, though, Hungarian Jews are, in a sense, too focused on the trees to notice the forest. The largest Jewish organisation, ‘Mazsihisz’, in the past few weeks has been on a collision course with the government. On Sunday ‘Mazsihisz’ identified three major issues with which the Hungarian government needs to deal in a satisfactory way for it to reconsider its decision to boycott the official commemorative events in 2014 scheduled for the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary. One may argue that the comparison between Americans and Hungarians does not work since the American people is a rather recent construct that designates a group of individuals whose coherence is not determined along ethnic lines. That argument, however, also applies to the Hungarian nation since it, too, is not only an amalgamation of various ethnic groups tied together by history, cultural affiliations and language but is also a constitutively heterogeneous nation. The history of Hungary shows that any ethnic group that wished to become absorbed into the body of the nation could do so. The patriotic Hungarian Jews in the middle of the 19th century believed it was no different for them. And indeed, the endeavours of Jews in Hungary for the past 150 years to acculturate within Hungary began to bear very significant fruits from the time Hungarian Jews committed themselves on the side of the Hungarians against the Austrians in the abortive Revolution and War of Independence of 1848-1849. Once the law removed all legal obstacles from Jewish Hungarians with the passing of the 1867 Jewish Emancipation Law, Hungarianisation of Jews accelerated at a remarkable pace. An increasing number of Jews in Hungary began to think of themselves and carried on their lives as Hungarians with their Jewish cultural affiliations either remaining intact or shrinking rapidly. 

The ascendancy of Jews in all areas of Hungarian culture occasioned a severe backlash with Admiral Miklós Horthy’s assumption of power in 1920. The first anti-Jewish measures in all of Europe were passed in Hungary in the same year Horthy took power. The Numerus Clausus law, a sort of reverse affirmative action law, greatly limited the number of Jewish students eligible for university admissions. From that moment on, the Jewish citizens of Hungary must have known that they were not considered as part of the Hungarian nation. The periodic eruptions of anti-Jewish riots in universities in the 1920s and 1930s constituted another painful reminder that Hungarian Jews were not welcome in the universities. In 1938-39, further anti-Jewish laws were passed that limited the number of Jews allowed in various intellectual professions. These measures were taken because Hungarians of Jewish descent had become “too successful” in Hungary in all cultural and professional areas and had to be restrained. Jewish success was also Hungarian success. Hungarian Jews came up with amazing inventions, achieved Olympic victories, expanded industrial output and furthered intellectual work to the benefit of the entire nation. Yet, to the anti-Semite, a Jew remained a Jew no matter his or her acculturated appearance and estrangement from all things Jewish. 

Nothing prepared Hungarian Jews for the horror that would befall them toward the end of the Second World War. The most tragic period for Hungarian Jews came in summer 1944 when Jewish life outside Budapest came to an abrupt end with mass deportations and the systematic murder of an estimated 437,000 Hungarian Jews in eight weeks. In Budapest itself, derisively called Judapest at the turn of the century for its large number of Jewish residents, Jews were herded into a large ghetto or went into hiding with false papers (many of whom, in a figurative if not literal sense, stayed in hiding as a Jew forever). That large numbers of Jews in Budapest could pass for non-Jews with the help of a piece of paper is elo-quent testimony of the success of Hungarian Jewish acculturation.The significant role of the regent of Hungary, Miklós Horthy, in allowing mass deportations from all of Hungary is clear to historians and Hungarian Jews. It is precisely the current Hungarian government’s attempt to re-evaluate and whitewash the Horthy regime with the proposed erection of a statue commemorating the 70th anniversary of the German occupation of Hungary that has unified the otherwise very fragmented Jewish Hungarian part of the Hungarian people to an unprecedented extent. Many in Hungary remember the rather placid and ineffective role Jewish organisations played in the face of increasing pressure just before and during the Holocaust. Although the facts are not as clear, the popular perception among many Jews today is that the Jewish council in 1944 collaborated with the authorities and, thereby, made the situation for the Jews much worse.

So, the decision not to go along with the Hungarian government’s expectations of Jewish collaboration in the 70th anniversary’s commemorations constitutes a watershed moment in Hungarian Jewish history. It is incumbent upon everyone to support this extraordinary self-assertion by the official representatives of Hungarian Jewry by urging everyone involved to follow suit and boycott all official government-sponsored commemorations of the Holocaust in 2014. That means every international dignitary, speaker or guest invited by the Orbán government to participate should now express solidarity with the survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants in Hungary who have made the difficult but morally correct decision to boycott these events. Yet, complete non-action would serve no purpose. I believe that all people of goodwill, whether inside or outside of Hungary, may now begin to contribute to conceiving and/or putting into action alternative modes of commemorations (both traditional as well as innovative ones) that would serve to educate people about what happens when age-old prejudices, greed, the active hatred of some and the callous indifference of the majority are combined, as happened in Hungary but 70 years ago, resulting in the gradual dispossession and large scale murder of more than half a million people classified as Jews in death camps and in the streets of Budapest. As far as Hungarian Jews are concerned, 2014 will not be a year of national reconciliation and forgiveness but rather the year in which even the most Hungarian of the Hungarian Jews will have to realise that they are still perceived as “our fellow Jewish citizens” rather than as “our fellow Hungarians”. 


David Mandler holds a Ph.D. in
English from New York University
and teaches English at Stuyvesant
High School in New York City. His latest
short story “The Loft” is available
through amazon.com. Read more from
him at drmandler.wordpress.com.


My next blogpost will focus on the events of 1944-45, following the deportations from the Hungarian countryside and the beginning of the period of Terror in Budapest under the Szalási government.



Posted February 15, 2014 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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