Elie Wiesel in Hungary

According to one article I read this is Eli Wiesel's first official visit to Hungary. Another article mentions that this is his first trip in sixty years, that is since 1949. This is clearly wrong. Wiesel hasn't been back in Hungary since he was deported from there in 1944. Moreover, he refused any invitation to Hungary until now.

Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighetu Marmatiei, then belonging to Romania. The Hungarian name of the town used to be Máramarossziget or, as the locals called it, Sziget. Sziget means island in Hungarian. In the town there was a very large Jewish population: 11,088 out of 21,370 at the end of World War I. The Jewish population was predominantly Hungarian speaking because, although the town belonged to Romania, the great majority of the inhabitants (17,542 or 82%) either claimed Hungarian as their mother tongue or spoke the language. There were very few Romanian speakers in town. It was therefore natural that the people of Sziget were elated when the town was returned to Hungary after the Second Viennese Award in 1940. Wiesel's father was also thrilled, but soon enough came the bitter reality. With the Hungarian "liberation" came the Jewish Laws and discrimination and eventually in May 1944 deportation to German forced labor camps.

Wiesel, of course, has bitter memories about his Hungarian past and didn't want to visit the country. Why he decided to go now, I'm not sure. Perhaps because he is eighty, perhaps because he is interested in the thriving Jewish community in Budapest, perhaps because he was invited. The occasion was the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of Chabad Lubavits in Hungary. The two leaders of the movement are Rabbi Baruch Oberlander and Rabbi Slomó Köves (born Máté Köves, Budapest, 1979). They were responsible for inviting Wiesel to Budapest.

The government did its utmost to make Wiesel feel welcome. He was received in the Budapest Airport's VIP Room where he arrived looking quite chipper.Wiesel Slomó Köves is right behind him. There was a gathering held in the Parliament's Chamber of the Upper House, a chamber that is not used very often because Hungary of course has no upper house. The title was "Jewish-Hungarian Coexistence: Together for a Common Future." Wiesel began his speech in Hungarian and continued in English. He mentioned that it was in this chamber that members of the Hungarian Upper House voted for the discriminatory Jewish Laws. He was quite blunt in saying that in the West Hungary at the moment has a bad reputation because of the news on the growth of anti-Semitism. He recalled the brutality of the Hungarian gendarmerie when its members gathered the Jews of Sziget. He emphasized that he has no hatred toward Hungarians. The present generation is not responsible for what their ancestors did, but they certainly must make sure that the past will not be repeated.

Gordon Bajnai's speech emphasized the contributions that Jews made to Hungary in the past and in the present. He admitted that the ideology that led to the holocaust is still present in certain circles and they have every reason to be worried. Hungarians who like to put the blame exclusively on the Germans might not be too happy with what Bajnai said at the end of his speech: "It happened to us, but we committed it in large part."

As for the present, Bajnai admitted that the Hungarian governments erred when they allowed the far-right to appear in political life. In Hungary the situation is that today there are people who are fearful because of their origin, thinking most likely of Gypsies and Jews. Again he emphasized that the "democratic right" (equivalent of Fidesz) must draw a sharp line between itself and the extreme right. The far-right must be isolated.

Then came a speech from the other side. Zoltán Balog, Fidesz chairman of the parliamentary committee on human rights and in civilian life a Protestant minister, told the audience that no one has to be worried for his safety because the "state defends them" against atrocities. He promised that they would do everything in their power to stop the growth of national socialist ideology. At the same time "we will not allow ourselves to be branded by the stamp of anti-Semitism."

It seems that Wiesel wasn't too discouraged by Balog's speech because in a generous gesture he offered $20,000 to copy 45,000 cartons of documents pertaining to the Hungarian holocaust. The precious material is now in Moscow and therefore Hungarian researchers find it difficult to make full use of this important source. Because of Wiesel's gift the copies will be available in Budapest.

Last night there was a fancy dinner for innumerable guests but because of the people belonging to Chabad Lubovits and some others who keep kosher the dinnerware was a real problem. Where were they going to get that many kosher bowls, plates, and glasses? Eventually the Zsolnay factory came to the rescue and provided the necessary dishes for all the guests.

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Wiesel told me had passed through Hungary several times since being deported, but had never spent any extended time here.
Also, he said he had never been officially invited by anyone until the Chabad Lubavitch did so for the celebrations of their 20th anniversary in Hungary.
Minor point, Balogh spoke before Bajnai at the session in parliament’s upper house, not after.
And Balogh managed to respect his allotted 10 minutes, not like Bajnai, who spoke for nearly 28 minutes instead of 10.

It’s peculiar that Wiesel would be so upset about Balog’s mention of anti-Semitism as a political tool. After all, Bajnai himself admitted that that is exactly part of what’s been going on in Hungary. Here’s an excerpt of his speech, which I’m sure Wiesel must have been listening to, unless he got distracted after over 20 minutes: “Nekünk, demokratáknak, jobb- és baloldaliaknak egyik legnagyobb hibánk az, hogy hagytuk a politikai versengés és szembenállás egyik újabb frontjává válni az antifasizmus ügyét. Hagytuk, hogy ne a legmélyebb emberi meggyőződés, hanem politikai hovatartozás kérdése legyen megítélni a szélsőségeket. Ahogyan egyre durvul a politika, úgy züllik a demokrácia, úgy válnak a politika túszává a legelemibb emberi értékek és célok. De nem lehet szavazatszerző technikának tekinteni a szélsőségekkel szembeni kiállást vagy hallgatást. Egyiket sem. Azzal nem sokra megyünk, ha egymást támadjuk, ha az egyik politikai érdekből hangoskodik, a másik esetleg politikai érdekből hallgat. Ezt jobb- és baloldalon minden demokratának be kell látnia.” I must commend Bajnai for his comments. Many of his points were valid and well made. Unfortunately, he has nothing to lose, he won’t have his personal power at stake in the campaign and he’ll long be out of office by the time… Read more »