Tag Archives: András Heisler

András Heisler’s speech in the presence of Prime Ministers Netanyahu and Orbán

Your Excellencies, Lord Mayor of Budapest, Chief Rabbi of Hungary, Rabbis, Honored Guests!

Today may be the first time in the history of the Hungarian Jewry that our community can host two prime ministers at the same time. We can say it is a Historic Event. And this historic event takes place at a historic site, here, in Goldmark Hall. Due to the Jewish laws of the Horthy era Goldmark Hall was the one and only place where Jewish actors were allowed to perform between 1939 and 1944.

In my welcoming speech, I will talk about the strongest bridge between two geographically distant countries, the connecting role of the Hungarian Jewry. Our past and our future connect us, as our love of Hungary and of Israel connects us. We have our history represented in this room today: here sit among us well respected members of our community who were victims of the indescribable boundless, murderous hatred. They will listen with us to the words of the prime ministers of Hungary and of the Jewish State.

Mr. Prime Ministers, my 92-year-old mother, who came back from Auschwitz, is sitting right behind you. And here is the future generation also, those who regularly visit Israel and who work or study there at the universities. They are the ones who will further develop the connection between the two countries. Our survivors and our youth are our bridges between times and lands.

Hungary, the birthplace of Herzl, is Israel’s reliable partner. Hungary was the first in Europe to stand up against the boycott aimed at endangering Israel’s economic development by refusing to label products arriving from the disputed territories. The Hungarian government–complying with our request–made it clear that fundamental practices of our religion, like the right to perform circumcision and kosher slaughtering, are part of our “freedom of religion” while some countries of the European Union are questioning these practices. Our co-operation in the field of education is also successful. And based on the meetings yesterday, cultural and economic cooperation are perfect as well. And at our last meeting of the “Jewish Community Roundtable” I asked that Hungary recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the city that all three monotheistic religions make their home. We hope…

From left to right: Viktor Orbán, Benjamin Netanyahu, and András Heisler. In the background: Anikó Lévai, Orbán’s wife

The largest Jewish community of Central Europe has always helped and will always nurture the friendship between Hungary and Israel. Hungarian-Israeli relations are indeed good, although there are some disturbing phenomena which I would like to address honestly. Hungarian governments have been ambiguous about the role Hungary played in the Holocaust, and the responsibility of the government and governor of the time. Seventy-two years after World War II the restitution of the Jews has still not been fully completed. While the healing of the legal injuries of the churches remains unsolved, that would help restore the independence of the churches.

It has been possible to launch a total propaganda campaign in Hungary whose language and visual tools revived in our minds the bad memories of the past. One can argue about the intent of the campaign, but one thing became unacceptable to me: the Jews of Hungary began to live in fear. And a responsible Jewish leader cannot keep silent about that. Neither can a responsible head of government. We are pleased to know that the Hungarian government wants to protect us as Hungarian citizens, but the most effective defense we see is a Hungarian society without hatred. I ask the Prime Minister of Hungary to help Hungary become a society where the real power is the mutual respect of each other’s values.

Honorable Prime Ministers! Dear Guests! We want to be proud Hungarian Jews in a country where the tag ‘stinking Jew’ cannot appear on anyone’s image. The majority of Hungarian Jews want to continue to live here, here in the embrace of the Carpathians, but without fear! Our history, our culture, our most beloved Hungarian language binds us here.

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu! It is painful for our community when Israel attempts to narrow the religious recognition of the diaspora. Our community survived the Holocaust, remained faithful to its roots through the repressive communist regime, and we are not recognized as Jews? Can you disregard all the conversions, brit-milahs, weddings, rabbinical decisions taking place in our absolute neolog-majority communities? We, who are labelled as ‘stinking Jews’ in Europe, we, who support Israel’s efforts, we, who dream about Israel, why aren’t we good enough Jews any more for Israel?

Also the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry’s evaluation of the recent poster campaign was like a cold shower for our community. After the support of the Israeli Ambassador, this declaration of the Foreign Ministry caused sorrow in our community. Many felt that we had been abandoned. And we are not talking about the past now, but about the future of our community. About the hope that we have for our future, about the respect of the Jewish community that is catalyzing the relationship of the two countries. Prime Minister Netanyahu, I respectfully ask you to foster greater respect for the diaspora. Only a strong diaspora is able to help Israel, and we, Hungarian Jews, want to help.

Mr. Prime Ministers! We want to live as proud Jews and consider ourselves as responsible Hungarian citizens! We cannot keep silent when, due to daily political interests, our values are overridden. We Hungarian Jews do support Israel. We Hungarian Jews help the Hungarian government in all its endeavors that concur with our values. We supported Hungary’s presidency of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance; we defended the government when an international Jewish organization baselessly attacked it; we work happily in society-building projects; and we are working nationwide for social cohesion. We think that the “little help” the Hungarian Prime Minister was asking for has always been given, and we wish to do the same in the future.

Mr. Prime Ministers! The 140-year-old Rabbinical Seminary – Jewish University was the institution that trained our rabbis and the ones of the Visegrád countries for decades, even during the Communist regime. It is in our common interest to develop this special institution into a regional educational center where the Hungarian and the Israeli academic world can create values together. Our most important task is the preservation of our traditions, education, training, and creating values. Seemingly everything is all right. Many people talk about a Jewish renaissance. In fact, we struggle not against the government, not against migration, not against the anti-Semites, but against assimilation. The question is in the long-run whether our children or grandchildren will live as Jews. We aspire for a positive Jewish communal self-image, part of which is Jewish consciousness and a strong Israel. We are convinced that it is in the basic interest of both Hungary and State of Israel not to divide the Hungarian Jewry of the Diaspora, not to alienate it but to help build our communities in order to continue living and to pass on our ancestors’ Hungarian and Jewish traditions. We have to continue building a bridge between our countries! And when we face obstacles on that bridge, it is our mutual responsibility, Mr. Prime Ministers, to resolve them with attentiveness, through dialogue and rationality, honestly revealing real reasons, and not by sweeping them under the rug.

Honorable Prime Ministers! I am asking your and the Almighty’s help to accomplish this.

July 20, 2017

Meeting of the minds: Benjamin Netanyahu and the Visegrád 4

Even though many analysts are talking about the impending disintegration of the Visegrád 4 regional alliance, Benjamin Netanyahu decided to use it for his own political ends. The glue that holds the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia together is their determination to keep immigrants and asylum seekers out of their countries. In addition, the Polish and Hungarian governments work hand in hand against the “Brussels bureaucrats” who allegedly want to create a United States of Europe in which national differences will disappear. Both governments refuse to abide by the rules of the European Union while enjoying its financial benefits. Benjamin Netanyahu’s appearance at the Visegrád Four’s Budapest summit gave a huge boost to the anti-migrant policies of these countries and added fuel to the anti-EU posture of Poland and Hungary.

Thanks to an open microphone, we have a fair idea of how the Israeli prime minister wants to use the Visegrád 4. What we could hear was a “blistering attack” on the European Union. It is a well-known fact that Netanyahu has a “barely disguised contempt” for the EU, which often criticizes Israel over issues of the Jewish settlements and Netanyahu’s reluctance to continue the peace process. The Guardian described his remarks as bombastic, predicting the sad end of the European Union which may “shrivel and disappear,” especially if it doesn’t change its attitude toward the present Israeli government. “The European Union is the only association of countries in the world that conditions the relations with Israel, which produces technology in every area, on political conditions.” After this tirade he came to the real reason why he decided to accept Viktor Orbán’s invitation: “I think that if I can suggest that what comes out of this meeting is your ability perhaps to communicate to your colleagues in other parts of Europe: Help Europe … don’t undermine the one western country that defends European values and European interests and prevents another mass migration to Europe.” In fact, according to Netanyahu, “Europe ends in Israel [which] has no greater friends than the Christians who support Israel around the world.” He made it clear that he was talking not only about fundamentalist Christians.

What a happy crowd

The meeting was a real success. The prime ministers of the Visegrád 4 countries were impressed with Netanyahu and liked what they heard. At the end of the meeting he posted the following message on his Facebook page: “I’m happy the Visegrad Group accepted my invitation to hold its next summit in Israel. As the Jewish people say: Next year in Jerusalem!”

Haaretz, not exactly a supporter of the present Israeli government, called the leaked speech “bigheaded Euro-bashing … politically savvy and diplomatically demented” considering that the EU is Israel’s most important trading partner. As for using the Visegrád 4 to reshape the other member countries’ assessment of Netanyahu’s policies on settlements and the whole Palestinian issue, I have my doubts. Both Poland and Hungary are under a cloud in Brussels at the moment. It may just happen that both countries will face concerted efforts in the European Parliament to invoke Article 7 against them for gross transgressions of the basic values the European Union. As for the Czech Republic and Slovakia, they might not be willing to follow the lead of Poland and Hungary when it comes to confrontation with the EU. But as of now, it seems that Netanyahu achieved what he went to the Hungarian capital for.

From the descriptions of the events of the last two or three days, Viktor Orbán was in a fine mood, basking in the glory of being the host of such an important gathering. One can always read Viktor Orbán’s state of mind on such occasions. He can look glum, as when Angela Merkel visited Budapest, or radiant, as during Putin’s first trip to Hungary when he was light-hearted and relaxed.

By tonight, however, when he and Netanyahu paid a visit to the famous synagogue on Dohány utca where they met with the leaders of Mazsihisz (Alliance of Hungarian Jewish Congregations) his good mood may have been dampened. President András Heisler didn’t hide the Hungarian Jewish community’s criticism of Viktor Orbán’s anti-Soros campaign as well as Benjamin Netanyahu’s disregard of the Hungarian Jewry’s fears of anti-Semitism that the thousands of anti-Soros posters provoked. He also brought up the Hungarian government’s ambiguous attitude toward the Holocaust, although he was pleased that Orbán talked about the sin the Hungarian government committed at the time of the Holocaust. Turning to Netanyahu, he said that the disavowal of the Israeli ambassador’s statement on the Soros campaign came as a “cold shower” to him and his co-religionists. He emphasized that only a strong Jewish diaspora can help Israel effectively. Finally, he addressed Orbán and told him that Mazsihisz is ready to work with the Hungarian government when there is an agreement of views between them. I may add that this is not too often the case. Orbán didn’t respond to Heisler’s comments.

This oversized hat is the one Orbán puts on for appropriate occasions

I’m not sure whether too many observers will pay attention to one of the sentences in Heisler’s speech in which he talked about the importance of the unity of Hungarian Jewry and indicated that there are forces that are trying to sow discord among them. Indeed, the Orbán government has its favorite Jews: Rabbi Slomó Köves and his Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH). The name of this Jewish group is highly misleading because it is an ultra-Orthodox group affiliated with the Chabad movement that has no deep roots in the Hungarian Jewish past. As opposed to Mazsihisz’s Heisler, EMIH’s Köves didn’t find that Orbán’s campaign against Soros had anything to do with anti-Semitism. Given his very strong relations, even financial, with the Orbán government, his position on the subject is not at all surprising. So, I assume that the reference to sowing discord in the Hungarian Jewish community has something to do with the disparity between the cozy relationship between the tiny EMIH and the Hungarian government on the one hand and the often strained relationship between the government and Mazsihisz, which represents mainstream Jewish congregations based on traditional Hungarian Jewish practices, on the other.

July 19, 2017

The Hungarian Jewish community feels abandoned by Netanyahu’s Israel

Viktor Orbán did his best to make his meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu in Budapest a failure. First, quite unnecessarily he wove into one of his speeches a laudatory reference to Admiral Miklós Horthy, whose government played an active role in the Hungarian Holocaust. He called him “an exceptional statesman.” And then, two weeks before the arrival of the Israeli prime minister, he launched a vicious hate campaign against George Soros, which prompted anti-Semitic reactions in certain segments of Hungarian society.

Orbán apparently is in the habit of adding his own final touches to prepared speeches, and this superfluous and harmful addition about Horthy was one of these impromptu additions. The remark created an uproar at home as well as abroad, especially in Israel. Given the three-day visit by the Israeli prime minister to Budapest this week, one really wonders what was going on in the Hungarian prime minister’s head. Israel’s leading English-language paper, Haaretz, interpreted this remark “as part of an extremist nationalist and racist campaign [Orbán] is conducting ahead of elections in 2018.” Moreover, Orbán’s remarks “placed Israel in an embarrassing position” given Netanyahu’s impending meeting with Viktor Orbán and the Visegrád 4 countries in Budapest.

The Israeli government demanded an explanation. Four days after the delivery of the speech Yossi Armani, the Israeli ambassador, was instructed not only to issue a public statement but to make clear to the Hungarian government that Israel hoped for a statement from Viktor Orbán. He also warned that tension over the issue could hurt the summit between the two prime ministers. Eventually, a telephone call came from Péter Szijjártó, but, as Haaretz explains, he “did not clarify Orbán’s remarks, apologize or express regret for them, [but] the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, with an eye on the upcoming summit, decided to act with restraint and end the affair.”

Foreign Minister Péter Szjjártó in Jerusalem preparing Netanyahu’s visit to Budapest

Barely a week after this gaffe, the Orbán government embarked on a massive anti-Soros poster campaign which, if George Soros weren’t Jewish, would have been just fine with the Israeli prime minister, who dislikes Soros as much as Viktor Orbán does. But as András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz and spokesman for the Jewish religious community, pointed out, although the poster is “not openly anti-Semitic, nevertheless it is capable of inducing anti-Semitic sentiments.” He asked for the removal of the thousands of posters plastered all over the country. This call was then followed by the Israeli ambassador’s statement that “the campaign not only evokes sad memories but also shows hatred and fear.” But at this point Netanyahu, who is also the foreign minister of Israel, interfered. The foreign ministry issued the following statement: “Israel deplores any expression of anti-Semitism in any country and stands with Jewish communities everywhere in confronting this hatred. This was the sole purpose of the statement issued by Israel’s ambassador to Hungary,” he said. “In no way was the statement meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros.” The Hungarian Jewish community, which witnessed the anti-Semitic reactions to the poster campaign, was stunned and felt abandoned by the government of Israel.

András Heisler told the Associated Press today that “the Israeli foreign ministry’s clarification … in part surprised us and in part was hugely disappointing…. The Hungarian Jewish community felt that we were left in the lurch.” Most political observers are convinced that “Netanyahu’s visit provides [Orbán] a kind of acquittal regarding anti-Semitism and the stamp of being far-right.” Later in the day Heisler talked to Agnes Bohm of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency where he explained the Hungarian Jewish community’s position more fully. “It is most important for the Hungarian Jewish community that the Israeli prime minister condemns strongly any kind of hate campaign or hate speech during his visit to Hungary, and it is also very important that Netanyahu should stress the importance of the Diaspora, including the Hungarian Jewish Diaspora,” he said. Heisler also explained that “Soros’s name has a different meaning in Hungary and in Israel.” In Hungary “Soros is the symbol of the Jewish capitalist.” He added that “it was unacceptable for us that the Jews were afraid due to the hate campaign and to the hate speech. No leader of any Jewish community can tolerate when Jews fear the consequences of the hate campaign of the government.”

Mazsihisz is the representative of the Jewish religious communities, but secular Jews are just as unhappy about Netanyahu’s approach to what they consider to be a problem in Hungary and what the Israeli prime minister blithely ignores for political gains at home and abroad. According to Válasz, Mária M. Kovács, Péter Zentai, and Péter Bokor–a historian, a journalist, and an architect–delivered a 28-page document to Israeli Ambassador Yossi Armani containing letters to Netanyahu by 17 signatories. Among them are such well-known personalities as Ágnes Heller and György Konrád. At the same time Sándor Révész, a journalist and writer formerly of Népszabadság, wrote an opinion piece in HVG titled: “First? Worst!” It is a hard-hitting piece against the Israel Netanyahu has built. The message is that “to the Jewish state the Hungarian government is more important than the Hungarian Jews.” In Révész’s opinion, Netanyahu is a politician with whom few democratic politicians want to develop close relations. Orbán is one of the few who is not choosy. He is ready to be friends with the leaders of Russia, Egypt, and Turkey, or Netanyahu’s Israel. They are kindred souls. Such harsh criticism of Netanyahu’s regime cannot be heard too often in Hungary.

But Mairav Zonszein, a journalist and translator residing in Israel, feels very much the same way about this ugly episode. She wrote an opinion piece in today’s New York Times in which she expresses her admiration for George Soros who “has failed the litmus test that seems to count for Israel’s current leadership: unconditional support for the government, despite its policies of occupation, discrimination and disregard for civil and human rights. … Mr. Soros’s humanitarianism and universalism represent an expression of post-Holocaust Jewish identity that is anathema to the hard-line nationalism of Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition,” which necessarily leads to close relations with such autocratic states as Russia, Turkey, Egypt, and Hungary. She finds the Orbán-Netanyahu alliance unacceptable and immoral.

By contrast, the right-wing Hungarian media is outright ecstatic. Pro-government journalists look upon Netanyahu’s disregard of Mazsihisz’s worries about the anti-Semitic overtones of the anti-Soros campaign as an “official Israeli affirmation of the fact that neither Hungary nor the anti-Soros poster campaign is anti-Semitic.” For decades the Hungarian left has called “the political right Nazi and anti-Semitic.” But now, after the Israeli government’s statement, it is at last clear that this was a baseless accusation.

Benjamin Netanyahu arrived this evening in Budapest from Paris, where he attended a memorial gathering to mark the 75th anniversary of the infamous Vel’ d’Hiv Holocaust roundup. The post-war French government remained silent for a very long time about the fact that the French administration at the time was in charge of the roundup and deportation of about 13,000 Jews, including about 4,000 children, most of whom were killed. Although President Jacques Chirac acknowledged the country’s complicity in 1995, Emmanuel Macron used the occasion to reiterate his declaration that the French state bore responsibility for what happened in 1942 in Paris. I wonder whether Viktor Orbán will be ready to publicly declare the Hungarian government’s complicity in the death of over 500,000 Hungarian Jews. I wouldn’t wager too much money on it.

July 17, 2017

The “totally successful” anti-Soros campaign comes to a sudden end

It was over the July 1-2 weekend that Hungary was plastered with thousands of posters showing a smiling George Soros. The accompanying text declared: “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh!” That is, the strong and proud Hungarians must stop Soros’s efforts to send millions of Middle Eastern and African migrants to Europe, some of whom may end up in Hungary. This latest campaign cost the taxpayers 5.6 billion forints, over and above the 11 billion that had already been spent on earlier anti-migrant campaigns.

Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of religious Jewish communities, initially issued a bland statement about the unpleasant memories this poster campaign awakens in the Jewish community. A couple of days later, however, András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, wrote a stronger letter to Viktor Orbán asking him to end the campaign and remove the posters. Although the poster is “not openly anti-Semitic, nevertheless it is capable of inducing anti-Semitic sentiments.” He pointed out that these fears are not unfounded because hateful inscriptions had already appeared on the Soros posters that recalled the darkest period of Hungarian history.

Hungarian and old German anti-Jewish poster from the 1930s, side by side

This letter couldn’t be ignored, and Orbán answered promptly. The bulk of the letter was devoted to the perils Hungary faces and the heroic efforts he and his government are undertaking for the safety of the homeland and Hungarian families. Illegal migration is clearly a national security question, and whoever threatens Hungary’s security will have to face the Hungarian state’s political and legal power regardless of ethnic origin or religious faith. He reminded Heisler that he is actually defending the Jewish community by opposing illegal migration, which is the hotbed of the growing anti-Semitism in Europe. “I don’t expect thanks or recognition for our struggle against illegal migration, but a little help from your community would be nice.” Orbán left Heisler’s request for the removal of the billboards unanswered. 24.hu called Orbán’s letter impertinent.

It was at that point that Yossi Amrani, Israel’s ambassador in Budapest, published the following statement both in English and Hungarian on the Israeli embassy’s Facebook page.

I call on those involved in the current billboard campaign and those responsible for it to reconsider the consequences.

No gain can come from such a campaign recalling the historic lesson.

At the moment beyond political criticism of a certain person, the campaign not only evokes sad memories but also sows hatred and fear.

It’s our moral responsibility to raise a voice and call on the relevant authorities to exert their power and put an end to this cycle.

Yossi Amrani
Ambassador of Israel
Budapest, Hungary

A day after the ambassador called on Orbán to remove the posters, however, on the instruction of the Israeli prime minister’s office the foreign ministry backtracked, criticizing George Soros, who “constantly undermines Israel’s governments.” The foreign ministry’s spokesman refrained from criticizing Viktor Orbán and strongly denounced George Soros. “Israel deplores any expression of anti-Semitism in any country and stands with Jewish communities everywhere in confronting this hatred. This was the sole purpose of the statement issued by Israel’s ambassador to Hungary,” he said. “In no way was the statement meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros.”

This incident stirred quite a debate in Israel. Chemi Shalev, a Haaretz correspondent, wrote an opinion piece in which he didn’t mince words. According to him, the Israeli embassy in Budapest published an appropriate condemnation of the poster campaign against Soros “until Benjamin Netanyahu stuck a knife in their backs.” According to Shalev, “many Europeans, including Soros’ harshest critics, can clearly identify blatant anti-Semitism in these campaigns. Netanyahu apparently believes that his anti-Israeli position justifies throwing Soros to the anti-Semitic dogs.” He severely criticized Israel for its nationalistic, xenophobic, and insular policies which inevitably leads to “deepening ties and identification with similar countries that think and behave the same way.” Therefore, it is not at all surprising that Netanyahu and Orbán stand shoulder to shoulder despite Orbán’s recent praise of Miklós Horthy.

Gáspár Miklós Tamás (TGM) wrote a short thought-provoking essay in which he tries to define “modern anti-Semitism.” In his view it is not simply hostility toward a people or a religion but is an emotion that is against “universality.” Soros is an expression of that universality which the nationalistic, inward-looking far-right Orbán government finds unnatural. It considers it abnormal that someone identifies with others outside of his own people, religion, or sex. In that sense Benjamin Netanyahu’s government can be viewed as “anti-Semitic.” The Israeli prime minister will feel very much at home in Viktor Orbán’s company, he believes. “The boys will understand each other well.”

Meanwhile George Soros also raised his voice. “I am distressed by the current Hungarian regime’s use of anti-Semitic imagery as part of its deliberate disinformation campaign. Equally, I am heartened that together with countless fellow citizens the leadership of the Hungarian Jewish community has spoken out against the campaign.” In addition, Michael Vachon, director of communications for the Soros Fund Management and spokesman for George Soros himself, sent a letter around to explain what’s going on in Hungary. Apparently, the letter was written by Soros but appeared over the signature of Vachon. In Hungary it was published by 444.hu.

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

I am writing to alert you to deeply troubling developments in the heart of the European Union, in Hungary.

It is urgent that you help spread the news about what is happening.

Last week the Fidesz-led government launched a nationwide billboard and television advertising campaign reminiscent of Europe’s darkest hours.

The campaign uses an image of a grinning George Soros with the slogan “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh!”

Thousands of these posters have been plastered around the country: on billboards, on the metro, on the floors of Budapest’s trams so that people cannot enter the tram without trampling on Soros’s face.

Understanding the government’s intent, some of the posters have been defaced with hateful graffiti such as “stinking Jew” scrawled across Soros’s face. The government has spent $12.9 million (5.7 billion HUF) on the campaign so far.

Because of its clearly anti-Semitic overtones, the campaign has created an outcry amongst Hungary’s Jews and others. The leader of the Federation of the Hungarian Jewish Communities has called for an immediate removal of the poster as has Israel’s ambassador in Budapest.

Fidesz rejects charges that the campaign is anti-Semitic in nature and claims that the Hungarian government’s goal is to stop Soros’s “migrant campaign,” which they claim is promoting the immigration of a million illegal immigrants into Europe.

The government has consistently and willfully misrepresented Soros’s views on migration and refugees.

As a survivor of the Holocaust who hid from the Nazis in Budapest and later was himself a refugee, Soros knows first-hand what it means to be in mortal peril. He carries the memory of the international community’s rejection of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. It is from the crucible of those experiences that his empathy for refugees from war-torn Syria and elsewhere was born.

Soros’s actual position on migration is that the international community should provide more support to the developing countries that today host 89% of refugees and that Europe should accept several hundred thousand fully screened refugees through an orderly process of vetting and resettlement. He believes that qualified asylum seekers should not have to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean to reach safety.

He also believes that Europe needs a common asylum system that equitably shares responsibility for protecting legitimate refugees rather than placing that burden on only a few countries. Soros’s position is entirely consistent with mainstream European values. The Hungarian regime’s xenophobia and demonization of refugees are anti-European. The claim that Soros is promoting a scheme to import a million illegal immigrants into Europe is Victor Orban’s fantasy.

Please help us spread the word about this anti-Semitic and anti-refugee campaign in the heart of Europe.

At the end of this email I have included sample images of the Fidesz poster campaign. I have also provided links to recent news stories that attempt to explain why George has inspired the wrath of authoritarian rulers around the world.

Regards,
Michael Vachon

The following day ATV reported that, according to an influential Fidesz insider, the anti-Soros campaign is coming to an end. In Orbán’s opinion, the campaign was a “complete success” because it not only solidified the forces of the liberals and socialists but even Jobbik became a defender of Soros. They all showed their true anti-nationalist colors. And the real sign of the success of the campaign is Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that the anti-Soros campaign is not anti-Semitic. But Orbán wants to avoid a situation in which all those posters take attention away from the Aquatic World Championship. So, allegedly, the posters must come down because of this sporting event.

This explanation is questionable. The world championship begins with a lavish opening ceremony on July 14, so one assumes that visitors and athletes will be coming to town already tomorrow and all through Friday. Will it be possible to remove the thousands of posters by then? Or, as some people suspect, is the real reason for the removal of them by July 15 Netanyahu’s arrival on July 18? Perhaps Orbán fears that the sea of posters might change the Israeli prime minister’s opinion of the nature of this hate campaign. MSZP compared the Orbán government’s swift removal of the billboards and posters to the temporary disappearance of most of the anti-Jewish signs before the commencement of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Historians well acquainted with Nazi propaganda methods find more and more common features between German anti-Semitic posters from the 1930s and the two anti-Soros posters that have appeared to date. Almost as if the propagandists hired by the Orbán government turned to the Third Reich for inspiration.

July 12, 2017

Ideology and culture: The Mária Petrás case

In the last few days one gets the impression, especially if one reads a lot of British, American, German, and French newspapers, that life in Hungary has stopped outside of railroad stations and the Serb-Hungarian border. But of course life goes on, and the Hungarian media is full of smaller and larger issues of note.

One controversy centers on the Jewish Cultural Festival. The topic is not as unrelated to the refugee question as one would think because the dispute is about the extent to which one should tolerate performing artists who have direct or indirect connections with extreme right-wing groups. The case in point is Mária Petrás, a well-known folk singer whose specialty is the music of the Csango/Ceangăi people, who have been living for centuries in the Romanian region of Moldavia and who speak an old Hungarian dialect. By now their number is very small. Perhaps 4,000. Petrás herself comes from that small community.

József Böjte, who served as the artistic director of the Jewish Cultural Festival, didn’t invite Mária Petrás directly. She came along with a famous group of folk musicians called Muzsikás (Music Maker). Three years ago they, together with András Schiff, gave a very successful concert–“The Roots and Routes of Bartók”–in New York. It was favorably reviewed in The New York Times. The lead singer was Mária Petrás, whose voice was highly praised by the reviewer.

The Muzsikás group with Mária Petrás in Csángó folk costume

The Muzsikás group with Mária Petrás in Csángó folk costume

But then came a letter to the editor of Népszava, whose author found Petrás’s presence at the festival problematic. The reader pointed out that Mária Petrás has been a participant at several far-right events where she recited poems by the anti-Semitic Albert Wass and has sung at concerts where extremist rock singers who call their music “national rock” also appeared. In addition, she happens to be the wife of Kornél Döbrentei, an openly anti-Semitic writer, whose burning of the flag of Israel back in 2004 resulted in the departure of 108 writers and poets from the Writers’ Union when the Union’s leadership refused to distance themselves from Döbrentei.

The letter to the editor was correct. Mária Petrás did appear at Magyar Sziget, a yearly “cultural festival” of far-right groups who entertain their like-minded audience, although by now she has no recollection of the event. She participated in the Albert Wass Marathon, a twenty-four-hour reading from Wass’s writings in Pomáz, where she and Döbrentei live. She also sang at a birthday party for Kornél Bakay, an archeologist and historian, whose dubious, unscientific theories are coupled with extremist, Nazi views, including his attraction to the ideas of Ferenc Szálasi. And finally she did perform at one of the events organized by Loránt Hegedűs, Jr., the infamous anti-Semitic minister. All in all, the organizers decided that to have Petrás sing in the synagogue was inappropriate. Muzsikás, the group that invited Petrás, decided to scrap their performance in a show of support for Petrás.

That was bad enough, but what followed was even worse. Fidesz obviously feels very strongly about Mária Petrás just as it did about her husband back in 2004 when he, most likely dead drunk, wanted to board a British Airways flight but was ordered off the plane by the captain. Döbrentei claimed that the captain removed him because he wore the Hungarian tricolor on his lapel and because he complained that Magyar Nemzet was not available. Fidesz demanded an immediate investigation by the government. The party also charged that the British pilot was instructed, allegedly by the socialist-liberal government, to remove him for political reasons.

This time around the Orbán government decided to make a huge issue of the Petrás case. With the permission of the prime minister’s office, Undersecretary Csaba Latorcai, who is in charge, believe it or not, of “especially significant societal affairs” (kiemelt társadalmi ügyekért felelős helyettes államtitkár), delivered a speech to the audience gathered in the synagogue in Dohány utca. Instead of talking about the significance of the event, he delivered a lesson on tolerance. He explained that “culture” means dialogue but that dialogue must be based on truthfulness. “Falsehood kills dialogue,” and what happened in this case was a smear campaign against the singer without any foundation. The Hungarian government, he said, declared zero tolerance against anti-Semitism, racism, and discrimination, but “it also stands by those who are accused of anti-Semitism based on lies of an unverified document.” And he went on and on, although the audience tried several times to give him the idea that they are no longer interested in his message. The first time the audience began to applaud in the middle of one of his sentences he was merely surprised. Subsequently, he concentrated on finishing his speech no matter how many times the audience wanted to silence him. Fidesz guys usually have their way. At the end he managed to convey the government’s demand: Mazsihisz should apologize to Mária Petrás.

Let’s set aside the oafish behavior of this man and just concentrate on the question of truthfulness. Who was not telling the truth? I’m afraid it was Csaba Latorcai because no one accused Mária Petrás of anti-Semitism. The reason for her withdrawal from the program was her frequent appearances at events associated with far-right anti-Semitic groups or persons. As for the “unverified document,” meaning the letter to the editor in Népszava, it was checked and found to be a reliable source of information. In fact, it was only a partial list of her appearances at far-right events.

A few hours later József Böjte, the artistic director of the Jewish Cultural Festival, tendered his resignation, which was accepted by the president of Mazsihisz, András Heisler. Another controversial move. Surely, the audience that tried to drown out the undersecretary’s inappropriate speech was satisfied with Böjte’s decision to “disinvite” Petrás. But it seems that the leaders of Mazsihisz decided that refusing to accept Böjte’s resignation was too risky given the mood of the prime minister’s office. The original speaker at the event was supposed to be János Lázár himself, and it was only in the last minute that Latorcai had to replace him. Surely, the content of that speech was approved by Lázár himself. It looks as if Mazsihisz decided to sacrifice Böjte. They refused, however, to apologize, at least openly.

So, the Petrás affair looks like a messy draw, but another issue is on the docket that will undoubtedly cause serious friction between Mazsihisz and the Orbán government. It is Zoltán Balog’s determination to erect yet another memorial on Szabadság tér, this time in memory of the victims of the Soviet occupation. Another controversial topic, another round of fighting. We know who has the upper hand.

House of Fates: Mária Schmidt versus János Lázár

For months there was silence on the new Holocaust museum, the brainchild of János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office. I covered the story of the project from its inception to the temporary impasse in October 2014. The project, to be known as the House of Fates, was more or less foisted on the Jewish community, whose religious umbrella organization, Mazsihisz, felt that the 7.5 billion forints allocated to the project could have been better used elsewhere. They thought that some of the money could have been utilized for improvements to and an enlargement of the existing Holocaust Memorial Center.

By now, however, it has become evident that the Orbán government wants to have its own parallel institutions because the existing ones are suspect. They might not serve the Fidesz government. So, the project went ahead without any consultation with representatives of the Jewish community. By October, however, it seemed that the government realized it had overstepped. Lázár announced that there will be no new museum without the express approval of Mazsihisz and the organizations it represents.

sorsok haza4

Mária Schmidt, who was entrusted with overseeing the project, was largely responsible for the impasse. Since her interpretation of the Hungarian Holocaust is rejected by serious historians, her appointment signaled to the Jewish community that the Orbán government was embarking on another falsification of history. All the blame for the deportation of Jews will be placed on the shoulders of the German occupying forces. That historical view even found its way into the new Hungarian Constitution, adopted by the Orbán government, which in its preamble states that the country’s self-determination was lost on March 19, 1944, and therefore Hungarian authorities were not responsible for anything that happened during the summer of 1944, when the deportations took place. Moreover, Schmidt’s initial proposals indicated that the exhibit would concentrate only on the deportations themselves and would ignore all the anti-Jewish laws that were passed during the Horthy period, starting in 1920. Schmidt also planned to stress the rescue efforts of non-Jewish Hungarians, efforts that were neither widespread nor substantial.

So much by way of background. We don’t know exactly why, but in October Viktor Orbán decided that in order to avoid an international scandal the government might have to sacrifice Mária Schmidt. By December there were rumors that Schmidt might be removed from the project. In early February János Lázár sent Mária Schmidt’s 200-page proposal to the Jewish organizations and to historians who deal with the subject. He gave them a month to look over the material and to give him their opinion. A cursory look at the document reveals that of the 200 pages only 30 deal with the concept of the museum. The rest are photographs, maps, tables, etc.

Well, a month went by and the experts spoke. Not only Jewish organizations but scores of historians, including associates of the National Academy of Sciences, found Schmidt’s proposal unacceptable. I was not surprised about their verdict, but I was astonished at the open fight that ensued between two people so close to Viktor Orbán.

Only yesterday I watched a political discussion among former members of parliament on ATV who described the Orbán government as a rickety structure that is going to fall apart soon. Of course, there’s a hefty dose of wishful thinking in such a description, but there are signs of crisis on all levels. When four important Fidesz members of parliament (János Kövér, Mihály Varga, Miklós Seszták, and Sándor Fazekas) vote against a proposal submitted for consideration by János Lázár, this is something one cannot ignore. The loss of popularity of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán has made party leaders and government members brave. After all, they would like to keep their jobs and their political clout, and it looks as if Orbán’s policies are threatening both.

Mária Schmidt decided to fight for her position and her project. She accused Lázár of “purposely and willfully going against the decision of the government.” Moreover, Lázár, instead of listening to her, is relying on the advice of a former communist. She was talking about Gusztáv Zoltai, the Hungarian representative to the World Jewish Congress and president of one of the Hungarian Jewish organizations, who to everyone’s astonishment became an adviser to Lázár in October.

Lázár was not about to let her charge go unanswered. The next day he said that “there will be a museum with the approval of the Jewish community or not at all.” In order for the museum to be opened, “the organizers, the planners, the historians, and also the government must gain the approval of the Jewry of Hungary. If they don’t support it, then the House of Fates will not be built.”

Schmidt, who is apt to vacillate between the syrupy and the shrill, fought back, claiming that Lázár sent out a preliminary description of the project, not the final one. Lázár in turn told her that he will be happy to oblige if there is a newer, approved version of the document. No new version has emerged, but she gave an interview to András Stumpf, which appeared yesterday in mandiner.hu.

The interview is long and covers a range of subjects. I will deal with only those that are directly related to the House of Fates project.

First, she insisted that a complete project description does exist and that she showed it to Csaba Latorcai, the undersecretary in the prime minister’s office in charge of the project. The problem is that Latorcai has no recollection of the encounter. Otherwise, she refuses to reveal her ideas because “a curator doesn’t need to make his concept public.” The curator gets the job, works out the concept, puts the exhibit together, and after the opening “the public will judge.” This is the same argument the Hungarian government made when critics of the toll-road project complained that the government hadn’t discussed the project with the mayors and the public.

When the government first came up with the idea of the museum, she continued, Lázár never conferred with the Jewish community, which doesn’t even want a second Holocaust museum. This criticism is not unwarranted, but practically all government decisions are made this way and, as the journalist conducting the interview pointed out, Lázár didn’t act on his own in proposing the museum.

It looks as if Schmidt objects to Mazsihisz, or any Jewish organization, having a say in the matter of the Holocaust museum. By acceding to Mazsihisz’s request, Lázár “gave them the right of veto” over the project.  To Schmidt this is a serious matter because if “the government decides that it should be Mazsihisz that will do the job, then it must also consent to the notion that the Holocaust is not the concern of Hungarian society. My greatest problem with the activities of Lázár,” she said, “is that he created an internal Jewish affair from the Holocaust.”

Schmidt also accused the Jewish leaders of Mazsihisz of falsely spreading the charge of anti-Semitism in the last twenty-five years. These Jewish leaders are happy that the controversy surrounding this new Holocaust museum deepens the rift within Fidesz and the government. She claimed that the president of Mazsihisz, András Heisler, is a racist who wants to employ people in the new museum who “come from Jewish universities” whereas the government hires people not on the basis of ethnicity but of ability.

When the reporter intimated that János Lázár’s decision to gain the acquiescence of the Jewish community must have the approval of Viktor Orbán, Schmidt loudly protested. No, Viktor Orbán is a brave man while Lázár is a coward who has gone back on his word and abandoned his original plan.

If it depended on Mária Schmidt, she would open an exhibit that was never vetted by the Jewish organizations that currently exist in Hungary. Her position is that Mazsihisz and its affiliates represent only religious Jews, who in her estimate number no more than about 2,000 people. Heisler and others are not entitled to speak in the name of Hungarian Jewry as a whole. Although Schmidt’s figures are most likely right, as a result of the Orbán government’s mishandling of the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust, the entire Jewish community pretty well lined up behind Heisler and the other leaders. This is a new and most likely positive development.

Mária Schmidt’s latest opus: The love story

Mária Schmidt is familiar to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. This latest article of hers also appeared in Heti Válasz, her favorite publication. Her vision of  Jewish-non-Jewish relations as a love affair goes against everything we know about the period between the two world wars. If Sorsok Háza (House of Fates) becomes an embodiment of that love affair, we will have a totally false depiction of Hungarian reality. No wonder that the Hungarian Jewish community has great reservations about the project.

I have no doubt that the Sorsok Háza will open its doors and that what we find inside will mirror Mária Schmidt’s strange vision of modern Hungarian history. She makes it clear here that the project is a government-funded undertaking and thus no one has the right to have any say in its execution.

Mária Schmidt started off as a promising historian in the late 1980s, but soon enough she changed her chosen profession to become a party propagandist. She became chief adviser to Viktor Orbán in the second half of the 1990s and provided the underpinning of  Fidesz’s historical ideology.

The question is how long she will be useful to Viktor Orbán. Her latest excursion into the field of historical propaganda was not exactly a success story. The controversial memorial to “all the victims of  the German occupation” of March 1944 did serious damage to the already badly tarnished reputation of Viktor Orbán and his regime. 

* * *

“The Holocaust represents a value, because it has led to immeasurable knowledge at the cost of immeasurable sufferings;
thus, there is an immeasurable moral margin in it.”

Imre Kertész

I have not seen S. Z. for decades. The last time I met him was in New York in the early nineties at the place of the outstanding historian T. J., a common friend of ours, who has sadly deceased since. We got to know each other in Oxford where both of them were teaching then. S. taught Jewish history, of which subject he is one of the most widely acknowledged American academic experts, and I spent some time there on a research grant. Then S. came to Budapest for a conference, and after he gave his presentation, we went out for dinner. We talked for hours, and a lot of topics came up including the “House of Fates,” about which he had already heard a lot back in Washington and of course also during his stay here. Those who volunteered to bring him up to date concerning the state of affairs in Hungary, about me and the would-be Holocaust museum, had spared no effort to dissuade him from meeting me, both via e-mail and then personally. They were probably unaware of our long time acquaintence  which gave me the advantage that he wanted to ask me his questions and hear my answers, which is what he did. So we talked at length about the new memorial site which is in the making. I told him about the concept of the exhibitions and of the education and training center. I showed him the exterior and interior visual designs, the interior fit-out and furnishing concept. We discussed the prospective permanent exhibition in most detail. Finally he said: “If I get it right, this is a love story. A story of love between Hungarian Jews and non-Jews. A love that has survived everything. As a result of which there is still a large Hungarian Jewish community living in this country.”

Yes. This is exactly what the “House of Fates – European Education Center” is all about. This is about decision makers’ intent to take an oath on a common fate shared by all Hungarians: Jews and non-Jews alike. About the commitment to make sure that just like our predecessors we can also plan a shared future despite the cataclysms of the 20th century. This is why it is crucial for young generations to get to know and understand what the tragedy of the holocaust meant for our national community as well as what the causes, circumstances, intents and forces that had underlain and fuelled anti-Semitism in Hungary and in Europewere. Who and why had poisoned the lives of our fellow countrymen categorized as Jews even before the fateful Nazi occupation of Hungary. How and why part of the last, nearly intact European Jewish community could be so swiftly annihilated in Nazi death camps. Who are responsible for all that? Who were the ones who remained humans amidst inhumanity because they opted for what is good, at the risk of even their lives and freedom in some cases. How could the survivors start anew and process what can hardly be processed. Why the majority of those people decided to stay here, to start their lives at home again and share what their fellow countrymen had to share. For this is something unparalleled, something that is not self-evident at all, particularly if we consider the fact that in this Central and Eastern European region, and nearly in the whole of Europe, survivors decided to leave and part with their past.

The House of Fates is made up of three parts, namely an exhibition, an education and a training section. Moreover, it has an up-to-date, well-equipped conference room, a room for hosting and staging temporary exhibitions and the required infrastructural background.

The exhibition section is divided into three units: A permanent exhibition that takes 50-60 minutes to tour. The area of this exhibition is shielded so that visitors cannot use any electronic device there. The story that is related here focuses on the period between 1938 and 1948, based nearly exclusively on recollections of survivors, and is supposed to touch the feelings of the visitor, make him interested and, ideally, to prompt him to ask questions. The installation and the narrative are both targeted at the 14 to 24 year-old generation.  Having toured this exhibition unit the visitor can proceed to see the “exploration” section or go on to look at the remaining “chamber” exhibitions.  Upon entering the exploration section the visitor is (or may be) given a tablet, with the most important information concerning the items on display, including names, dates, and a lexicon, along with questions and assignments. Those interested in the chamber exhibitions may decide to see them or to come back and visit them at a later date. As our plans stand at present, the chamber exhibitions will show Hanna Szenes, the Zionist resistance, Raoul Wallenberg, Margit Slachta, Sára Salkaházi and the 1944 story of the Józsefváros Railroad Station as well as the story of the Jewish community of Budapest’s 8th  district called Józsefváros. This is where the walls of perpetrators, those responsible and the humanitarian rescuers will be installed. A videostream will be played in the exploration room, showing visitors the most important events and personalities of those years. A number of computer workstations will also be installed where additional information and data can be collected and studied. Interactive workplaces will be created for browsing and searching for information.

At the training center there will be programs bringing as close as possible to members of the “Y generation” the very feeling and experience of being excluded, outcast and persecuted, while drawing their attention to the importance and inevitability of making a choice between good and evil and individual responsibility.

Importance is also attached to offering a training program to enable teachers to teach their students about the collective persecution to which entire social groups had been exposed under the dictatorships of the 20th century, with particular focus on the tragedy of the Holocaust.

It was seventy years ago, in 1944, that Hungary suffered one of the most horrendous tragedies in its modern-age history. The second Orbán cabinet took its decision on the creation of what is known as the “House of Fates” in the context of the memorial year relating to the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust. In remembering the national tragedy seven decades after, this memorial year is intended to be a site of “creating order in our common matters” and have “peace flow through our rembrance and regard”1. In the context of the memorial year, the government has allocated a HUF 1.5 billion budget to social programs and it adopted a decision building up the Memorial to the Child Victims of the Holocaust – European Education Center at the site of the former Józsefváros Railroad Station.  I was entrusted with the role of leading the professional project team, while the implementation of the investment project was assigned to Government Commissioner Dr. Balázs Fürjes.

This assignment is a real honor for me but it is an immense responsibility and workload at the same time. It took me quite a while, wavering whether to undertake it at all. My children tried to dissuade me. As did some of my friends. One argument against taking up this job was that I would be exposed to relentless and fierce attacks. And even if all goes well, which I have staunchly believed up to this very day, I may expect nothing but denigration. Finally, I answered yes, out of love for my country. I hoped that through such an immense and successful undertaking I could perhaps make a contribution to reconciliation, to a discussion of the tragedies of the past to settle issues and to at least alleviating, if not bringing to an end, all of the evil and purposeless accusations constantly experienced even today. Thereby neutralizing or at least weakening the forces continuously calling Hungary an anti-Semitic and fascist country, using these unfounded stigmata as a political weapon to discredit the Hungarian nation as a whole. Indeed, I expected all of those who already started a media campaign against the  House of Terror Museum and spared no effort to discredit it both in Hungary and abroad, to activate themselves again, and, alas, so they did, wasting no time. The same individuals and circles, with the same vehemence, started the same ruthless attack driven by the same motives both in Hungary and abroad, against me and the prospective memorial site, unleashing that orgy of hate which is so characteristic of them. This is why the “House of Fates” project became, right from the beginning, a target of a series of attacks lead, most unfortunately, by the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Faith Communities (MAZSIHISZ). For as we were approaching the 2014 election campaign the neolog Jewish religious organization undertook to launch a frontal attack against the government – yielding to circles of intellectuals dissatisfied by the weakness and wavering of the anti-government forces – threatening to boycott the memorial year. They put together a package of three demands, calling for the discontinuation of the sculpture composition designed for Szabadság Square in remembrance of Hungary’s Nazi occupation, the removal of director-general Sándor Szakály from the helm of Veritas, a new historical research institute and a right to control and supervise the creation of the House of Fates.

sorsok haza projekt

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán tried to remove the politically motivated onslaught from among the campaign themes by inviting Jewish organizations to consultations after the elections.  Nonetheless, MAZSIHISZ and  its supporters continued their relentless campaign and their  attacks on the House of Fates. They threatened and tried to blackmail everybody cooperating with us or even considering accepting our invitation. They bombarded the members of the International Advisory Board with e-mail messages, as well as anybody else whom they could contact. They spread their accusations all over the place both in Hungary and abroad. In collaboration with certain leaders of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington – who have, to be honest, been rather negatively biased against us in the first place –, they turned Yad Vashem against us.

They are continuously inciting the Israeli Hungarian community as well. Among other charges, they argue that the name “House of Fates” is wrong or misleading, the location is not authentic, or if it is, then it is too particular; the deadline set by the government is too short for such complex work to be carried out properly, and then within one month of my appointment I was attacked for not having worked out a finished scenario. A public auto-da-fé was staged in the “Bálint House” where Professor András Gerő, arguing in favor of and working in the project team, was subjected to a ritual execution (also instead of me) by MAZSIHISZ employee László Karsai posing in the role of the grand inquisitor, in unison with the rather hot-tempered audience.

INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE

This had seemed likely to come; indeed it was to be expected. I went and kept going through this before, during, and for years after, the opening of the House of Terror Museum. However, the like of the direct and intensive international pressure I have experienced in relation to this assignment I did not even have to face at the time of the creation of the House of Terror Museum.  At that time it was only Mr. Mussatov, the then Ambassador of Russia, who protested against the new museum but his objections were settled through a joint tour of the exhibition and a discussion. The former diplomat has delivered presentations at several of our conferences since then. In regard to the “House of Fates”, however, ambassadors of a number of western countries feel compelled to lecture me on how to interpret, indeed, how we all Hungarians should interpret our 20th century history, with a special focus on the role of Miklós Horthy. I have had to sit through countless lectures delivered by western diplomats about Horthy, Hungary’s “revisionism”, the collaboration of Hungarians etc., and all of them represented countries whose history offers at least as many, if not even more, very good opportunities to raise uncomfortable questions. I was asked as early as just before Christmas 2013 by US Deputy Chief of Mission Mr. André Goodfriend – of course on a strictly “friendly” basis – for a list of the names of those working on the House of Fates project. Then a fortnight later he told me – again, on a friendly basis – that he did not agree with the participation of some of those included in the list. “I wasn’t aware that you needed to agree” was my response, also on a friendly basis. The Ambassador of the UK to Hungary assured me that Her Majesty’s government was avidly interested in the Hungarian Holocaust. This is very nice of them, particularly in view of the fact that their predecessors weren’t so very deeply concerned while the annihilation of European and particularly of Hungarian Jewry was underway. Both these gentlemen and a dozen or so of their fellow diplomats expressed their expectations and wishes in regard to the prospective exhibition. Hungary’s ambassadors in both Tel Aviv and Washington were summoned by the Departments of Foreign Affairs because of me, complaining about a remark I had made at a book presentation event, along the lines that the post-World War I system of dishonest peace treaties had been the most devastating tragedy of the 20th century and that a fair and unbiased approach should be taken when forming an opinion about Horthy’s role in history just like in the case of Kádár’s role, rather than viewing these political leaders strictly in black and white. Foreign diplomats, particularly some of the responsible officers of the US voiced their definite expectation that it should only be appropriate and necessary for the Hungarian Government to invite an international committee of historians to commit Hungary’s 20th century history to paper for us, Hungarians. They keep applying pressure to achieve such a governmental assignment. Even the US Foreign Secretary had been mobilized to achieve this end. I am particularly proud of the fact that during the latest Arab-Israeli armed conflict, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanjahu managed to find the time to send a letter to Viktor Orbán, voicing his concerns about my humble self and the House of Fates project.

As a consequence of internal political skirmishes and the unprecedented international pressure applied, both MAZSIHISZ and Yad Vashem withdrew from the International Advisory Board of the House of Fates project.  The rest of the members were also brought under pressure, to make it impossible for that board to continue its work. Therefore, instead of the next scheduled meeting of the international advisory board, we could only hold a consultation where the members present (Michael Wolffsohn and Joshua Muravchik) liked and were satisfied with our concept.

The situation changed somewhat by the middle of this summer. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Douglas Davidson and Sir Andrew Burns of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) ascertained, each of his own, that the misgivings concerning and attacks against the project are utterly groundless, and therefore it would be rather difficult to explain why they withdraw their support from a memorial site that will be Europe’s largest and very likely most grandiose and sophisticated such project.

Based on an initiative put forth by Director of International Jewish Affairs for the American Jewish Committee Rabbi Andrew Baker, a consultation took place in Budapest on July 28 among the House of Fates, the Páva Street Holocaust Memorial Center, MAZSIHISZ and IHRA, to remove obstacles from continued cooperation. The experts participating in the meeting raised no objection whatsoever against the contents of the exhibition and had no proposal or idea of relevance to be put on the table.  After half a day of discussions the parties agreed that a working group to be formed of the representatives of international Holocaust experts would help us with our work in regard to both the exhibition and education. The agreement so reached was broken up by MAZSIHISZ within 24 hours, again without any sound reason at all, asserting that the text that was published in the form of a press release was not the same as the one that had been agreed on, despite the fact that the president of MAZSIHISZ had approved this text beforehand in an e-mail message. Within another 24 hours IHRA  gave its support to this attitude.

The attitude of the foreign experts and officials is characterized by nothing better than what IHRA’s English Chairman Sir Burns told me at the end of the meeting in July – suggesting, again, of course, on a strictly friendly basis that I should no longer write articles, thereby referring to my text entitled Captive of the Past concerning the Szabadság Square memorial which had appeared a few weeks earlier in the weekly Heti Válasz. He and Mr. David Cesarini justified this piece of advice by referring to my responsibility for the House of Fates project which I must not jeopardize by publishing essays of sorts. All of these developments only deepened my awe and admiration of the developed western world, on account of its deep and staunch commitment to the freedom of speech and thought, even if I am beginning to vaguely recognize how much there still is for us to learn here, on the outskirts of the developed world, before we can also fully enjoy this privilege. Until then, we should best refrain from writing articles or doing things such as thinking about our own history – rather, we should be grateful and accept that all of these missions will be undertaken by them instead of ourselves, for our benefit.

MAZSIHISZ

The party-state dictatorship set up a single tightly controlled organization to lead Hungarian Jews actively practicing their religion through which it could simultaneously control both the internal affairs and the international relations of the Hungarian Jewry. Only the most determined individuals remained members of Jewish organizations during the decades of the party-state rule, partly owing to the above mentioned strict supervision and partly because open expression and practicing of one’s Jewish identity definitely did not meet the approval of the Communist authorities, in some cases entailing the devastating accusation of being a “Zionist”, in most cases with gruesome consequences. Members failed to flock to religious communities in large numbers despite the “Jewish Renaissance” that followed the political regime change. Those communities are still made up primarily of a few hundred – mostly elderly pensioner – devotees. Consequently, the leaders of those religious communities – just like the organizations they are heading – enjoy no general acceptance in Hungarian society, as has been increasingly revealed by a long series of scandals that have broken up in recent times.

No matter how a variety of influential international Jewish organizations as well as Israel’s representatives and diplomats have hastened to back them up, Hungarian society cannot be persuaded or forced to accept an official who first turned from transvestite performing artist into Lutheran theologian and Catholic parish choir master, and then on to the executive director of the Budapest Jewish Community, who is, according to the chairman of the Community, is not even of Jewish origin; or a former executive director banker who had been convicted for bribery. It is also clear for all interested outsiders that the current Chairman of MAZSIHISZ is not seeking an agreement in relation to the House of Fates but he is trying to improve his position to get re-elected by fully exploiting the media interest concerning the prospective memorial center. The Chairman of MAZSIHISZ is posing in the role of a relentless representative and promoter of the organization’s interests to prove his indispensability towards a handful of voters as well as international Jewish organizations and Israel. This is why he keeps upsetting all agreements and imposing new and then further demands and conditions. This is why he has formulated such demands in relation to the House of Fates that had never been and are still not considered to be of importance in relation to the Páva Street Holocaust Memorial Center, which is alleged to be very important to both him and the international Jewish organizations. During the past more than a decade the leaders of the Jewish religious community have never been able to contribute to creating the necessary environment and conditions for undisturbed and efficient work at the Páva Street institution, as is eloquently proven by the miserably low numbers of visitors and the unceasing internal skirmishes. And these unblessed circumstances were not in the least different during the eight-year period when they were cooperating with a Socialist-Free Democrat coalition government.  As a matter of fact, MAZSIHISZ leaders are driven by their own self-interests when they keep provoking fruitless conflicts with the government, whatever action the government happens to take. In attacking the House of Fates, they will even find it worthwhile to obstruct worthy remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust and our murdered compatriots.

In the autumn of 2014, Mr János Lázár the minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s Office who played a leading role in devising and organizing the memorial year for the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust; in putting in place the Szabadság Square memorial and the launching of the creation of the House of Fates, offered an adviser’s contract, much to the consternation of all, to Mr Gusztáv Zoltai, who had  played a leading role in blocking all of the above programs, until his dismissal in early April 2014. According to the arguments then put forth by MAZSIHISZ Chairman András Heisler, Holocaust surviving Zoltai had been so severely affected by the government’s intent to erect a memorial for the victims of Hungary’s German occupation, that he resigned from all of his positions. Heisler himself opted for a different strategy, by turning for help as usual to international public opinion. Zoltai, who used to be a 1956 Communist militiaman, a member of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP), a former member of the communist workers’ militia, headed MAZSIHISZ as an executive director from 1991.

His demonstrative inclusion on the government side was explained by the minister by pointing out that he “did not regard advisory services as some monkey business” and that they had known each other for quite some time. Public consternation was only further aggravated by János Lázár’s promise that the House of Fates would be opened “only in the framework of a consensual solution “, i.e. only if the domestic and international Jewish organizations, most recently, Hungarian Holocaust survivors and “those who suffered the tragedy”, find it to be acceptable and agree with its “professionalism”. Nothing could be more natural than Mr. Heisler’s interpretation: the minister gave them the right of veto concerning the House of Fates project.

Accordingly, the Faith Community, a religious organization representing about two thousand individuals will exercise censorship over the contents of one of the government’s important large scale projects, and will determine its view of history and its message. No such thing has happened in Hungary ever since the separation of state and church towards the end of the 19th century.

To let international Jewish organizations have a say without having contributed a single penny to the costs of setting up the institution is contrary to the responsibility of the sovereign Hungarian state for its own past, present and future.
In an interview with the daily Népszabadság (September 26, 2014) János Lázár repeatedly expressed that the moral values, the kind of community of shared values determining the political right, mean nothing to him. He finds criticism concerning his employment of Zoltay to be immaterial; indeed, he considers “any form of ex-post evaluation from the outside” of his newly hired adviser, to be a mistake. Let us not be surprised when using the same argument he invites one of these days the very Ferenc Gyurcsány to work for him as a government advisor, to whose Őszöd address Mr. Lázár referred the other day as a positive example.

Mr. Lázár apparently fails to understand that this time we are dealing with our very identity. This is not about practices in wielding power or safe bargains concluded in the background, but about principles, belief, all of the things on which our whole life, including our political community rests and is built. We have seen lots of examples during the past 25 years how disregarding principles and moral convictions lead to the loss of all values and then the collapse of entire political communities. When politics appear to be reduced to all-pervasive cynicism and bare immorality, the countdown will immediately start.

When I undertook to create what will be called the House of Fates, I knew what attacks I would be in for.  I undertook the job nonetheless, because I am convinced that my country needs to make sure that young generations also learn that preserving solidarity towards each other is one of our most important common values, and giving it up leads to immense losses and tragedies in the past, and the same would be bound to happen in the future as well. I am convinced that processing the past of our nation as well as presenting and teaching the lessons drawn from it are our tasks and responsibilities which we do not want to and will not evade. This is a cause for our national community that cannot be influenced by any particular or external interests. Not even if Mr. Lázár holds other views on this. The happy ending of the Love Story is at stake.
We must not let it get botched up. I for one will definitely do my share to prevent that.