Charles Gati is a senior research professor of European and Eurasian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. He is also a regular reader of and commentator on Hungarian Spectrum. This opinion piece originally appeared in The Hill on February 28, 2017.
♦ ♦ ♦
I am a Holocaust survivor. I was not yet 10 years old in 1944 when my parents and I were locked up in the Budapest ghetto, where some 15 of us lived in one small room. We were cold, hungry and lived in constant fear of being taken away and killed.
My parents and I were initially saved by Carl Lutz, the courageous Swiss diplomat who rescued some 62,000 Hungarian Jews by providing them with letters of protection. In helping the Jews of Hungary, he defied his government’s orders.
As a mark of respect for Lutz’s memory, and also in honor of those members of my family who did not survive, I object to President Trump’s choice of David Friedman as the next ambassador to Israel.
Friedman does not merely hold radical views outside the American mainstream and lack foreign policy credentials; he also negatively compared American Jews who don’t share his positions to “kapos.”
I doubt that Friedman understands who the kapos really were. They were Jews enlisted by the Nazi SS during the Holocaust to serve the SS in the concentration and extermination camps as well as in the ghettos.
They were given a choice between collaboration and death. Some behaved with great brutality in order to survive. Others did the best they could to help themselves and to help us, too. While I do not excuse their actions, no one who was not there in those unimaginable conditions has the right to pass judgment.
Is Friedman sure he knows what he would have done?
To be fair, I don’t know what I would have done. I did not personally experience the camps. With my parents, I evaded deportation thanks largely to the papers provided by Lutz, the Swiss consul-general to Budapest at the time and truly a Righteous Among the Nations.
But my father’s older brother Lajos Gottlieb and his wife disappeared during those dark days and we never heard from them again. My father’s other brother Zsigmond Gellért and his teenage son Gábor were taken to Auschwitz and died there. Zsigmond’s wife — my Aunt Ferike — and her daughter Vera — my first cousin — were also deported to Auschwitz, but survived.
I give their names to make an important point: the Holocaust, the kapos and their many victims are not metaphors or abstractions.
For Friedman to brand other Jews engaged in legitimate debate in our democracy as kapos is not only offensive; it shows a disturbing lack of knowledge.
It borders on incredulous to believe Friedman’s sudden reversal during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony of what he had previously professed.
Despite his last-minute about-face during his hearing, I continue to doubt that Friedman understands who the kapos were. If he did, he would recognize that the damage caused by his hurtful and mean-spirited comments could not be walked back over during a few hours of public testimony.
Watching his testimony for several hours, I had the impression that under his calculating, lawyerly demeanor was an agitator eager to be confirmed as an ambassador.
Worst of all, by freely throwing around words that have a specific meaning in the context of a specific historical event, Friedman dilutes the meaning of the Holocaust and dishonors the memory of those who perished.
Using this term to describe one’s political opponents actually aids the work of Holocaust deniers because it suggests that kapos are an everyday phenomenon that arise in every generation — and not a tragic group of people caught in a uniquely agonizing dilemma during the Holocaust.
To serve in Israel, in particular, we need diplomats in the cast of Carl Lutz who use their office to do good. That is why — for the sake of American interests and values and also for the sake of history and memory — I hope the Senate does not vote to confirm David Friedman’s appointment.