Tag Archives: Holocaust

The Veritas Institute’s legends and myths about the Hungarian Holocaust

Let’s return to history today for at least two reasons. The first is that as time goes by it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Orbán government, by setting up a number of historical institutes, is trying to create “an alternative history” of modern Hungary between 1867 and 1989. These are the years whose historical interpretation still has political relevance. It is the history of these 120 years that the Orbán government wants to rewrite with the assistance of about 20 historians willing to do the job. This is a much more serious threat than most people realize. The second reason for returning to Sándor Szakály’s interview with The Budapest Beacon is that I could cover only one small segment of the conversation, about the “first anti-Jewish law,” as Mária M. Kovács, author of a book on the numerus clausus of 1920, called it. But Szakály’s other responses, all related to Jewish-Hungarian history and the Holocaust, also tell a lot about the mindset of these historical revisionists.

A large portion of Szakály’s apologia of the Horthy regime’s Jewish policies dealt with how much and when Miklós Horthy and his entourage knew about the “final solution.” Here he was arguing against László Karsai’s long-held view, supported by strong documentary evidence, that members of the Hungarian government knew about the death camps as early as the fall of 1942.

Karsai, in a lengthy article that appeared in the March 2007 issue of Beszélő (Interlocuter), dissected the most common “legends and myths” about Miklós Horthy’s tenure as governor of Hungary. A special section was devoted to his activities during 1944. One common legend is that Horthy’s daughter-in-law, Mrs. István Horthy née Countess Ilona Edelsheim Gyulai, gave him the so-called Auschwitz Reports, a collection of eyewitness accounts of two Jewish inmates from Slovakia who had managed to escape, only on July 3. Whereupon, the legend continues, he immediately called Colonel Ferenc Koszorús, a trusted officer, to the capital. His task was to expel the gendarmerie from Budapest in order to avert the deportation of the city’s Jewish population.

The Veritas Institute’s mission is to perpetuate these myths and legends. Szakály takes it for granted that Ilona Horthy’s information about the events of July 3, which she wrote about in her memoirs published in 2001, almost sixty years later, is accurate despite documentary evidence to the contrary. Szakály also doubts Karsai’s interpretation that Horthy intended only to suspend the deportations, not to end them. Szakály will believe Karsai on that score only if his fellow historian can produce “a document with Horthy’s signature which states that the governor wants to begin the deportations anew in August.” A typical demand from the positivist Szakály, who at the same time admits that “certain ‘promises’ were given [to the Germans] by Horthy, Döme Sztójay, and Andor Jaross.”

What documents does László Karsai cite in support of his thesis that important members of the government knew about the German extermination of Jews in Germany and in German-occupied territories? The first is a conversation between Döme Sztójay, the anti-Semitic Hungarian minister to Berlin, and György Ottlik, editor-in-chief of Pester Lloyd, in August 1942, during which Sztójay admitted that sending Hungarian Jews to Germany “doesn’t mean deportation but extermination.” Ottlik immediately reported this intelligence to Prime Minister Miklós Kállay. A few months later Sztójay told a German diplomat that Kállay “is somewhat worried about sending Hungarian Jews to Germany because he fears that ‘their continued existence’ is not assured.” So, Kállay got the message. In the same year the ministry of interior also received information through detectives about Germans starving Jews to death. But if that isn’t sufficient to convince Szakály, there is direct proof that Horthy knew about the death camps way before July-August 1944. The revelation is contained in the draft of a letter by Horthy to Hitler—actually prepared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—dated May 7, 1943. One of the sentences in the letter read: “A further reproach of Your Excellency was that the [Hungarian] government has failed to take as far-reaching an action in the extirpation of the Jews as Germany had taken, or as would appear desirable in other countries.” (The Confidential Papers of Admiral Horthy, p. 255) This sentence was subsequently deleted from the final version.

Mrs. István Horthy, née Ilona Edelsheim Gyulai in1942

Mrs. István Horthy, née Ilona Edelsheim Gyulai in 1942

Ignoring this evidence, Szakály in his interview insists that “neither the great majority of the Jewry nor the Hungarians knew what was happening with the deportees,” even though the Auschwitz Reports reached Budapest in April of 1944.

And what  evidence does his advance for his position? Not even the Veritas apologists can base their defense of Horthy on his memoirs (1957). Horthy’s  short description of events between March and October 1944 is rife with   mistakes and/or willful distortions. He claims that “not before August did secret information reach me about the truth about these extermination camps. It was [Lajos] Csatay, the Minister of War, who raised the matter at a Cabinet meeting” (p. 219).

But Szakály accepts the account of Horthy’s daughter-in-law, the widow of István Horthy, according to whom it was her “informant,” Sándor Török, the representative of the Christian Jews’ Association, who gave her the Auschwitz Reports on July 3. Three days later, she noted, on July 6, Horthy stopped the transports heading to Germany (Ilona Edelsheim Gyulai, Becsület és kötelesség, p. 263).

Sándor Török (1904-1985)

Sándor Török (1904-1985)

It seems that Ilona Horthy collected information for her memoirs from an ordinary appointment book, with only a few notations. She came to the conclusion that the crucial day had to be July 3 because she had underlined that day. My reaction upon reading the passage was the same as Karsai’s. On the basis of an underlined date, which might signify anything, one cannot recreate events with any certainty. In any case, she is not an objective observer. In her book she tries to show her father-in-law in the best possible light. For example, just as Horthy wants us to believe that he “lacked the means to check or thwart the joint action of the Germans and the Ministry for Home Affairs,” Ilona Horthy portrays Miklós Horthy as completely isolated. In her description he knows nothing about what’s going on. She writes that he tried to prevent the transports from leaving, but he could do nothing because they left in secret. That’s not how I remember it. So, there are many reasons not to use her as a reliable source.

Sándor Török, the man who delivered the Auschwitz Reports to Ilona Horthy, was already a well-known writer at the time who had published nine books by 1940. Before he died in Budapest in 1985, he wrote at least two books which contained autobiographical details from 1944-1945. I wouldn’t mind reading them.

And, a footnote, János Lázár, while insisting that he should not get involved in a historical debate, suggested that one day “the two sides will reach consensus on these issues.” Sure, they will meet half way. What a total misunderstanding of what history is all about.

July 2, 2016

Anti-semitism, racism, Huxit, or just a bad dream?

A few days ago I was toying with the idea of returning to my discussion of interwar Hungarian history as portrayed by Sándor Szakály, director-general of the government’s very own historical institute, brazenly named Veritas Research Institute. But we have all been preoccupied with the disruptive present.

The reason I wanted to go back to Sándor Szakály’s interview with The Budapest Beacon was because, as I indicated earlier, he gave an account of the Hungarian Holocaust that I knew would prompt rebuttals from academic historical circles. I was right. László Karsai, one of the foremost historians of the Hungarian Holocaust, tried to set the record straight about such critical points as when Miklós Horthy knew about the true fate of those Hungarian Jewish citizens who were sent in cattle cars to Auschwitz. I hope to return to that part of the Szakály interview sometime in the future.

Today, as the first topic of this post, I’m going to look briefly at the afterlife of Szakály’s unacceptable interpretation of the so-called numerus clausus, which limited the number of Jewish students to a mere 6% of the entering university classes. In Szakály’s opinion, the introduction of the law was unfortunate because it violated the concept of equality before the law, but from another point of view it was “a case of positive discrimination in favor of those youngsters who had less of a chance when it came to entering an institution of higher education.” The opposition parties immediately demanded Szakály’s resignation, and three days after the interview MAZSIHISZ, the umbrella organization serving various Jewish religious groups, also issued a statement in which it especially decried the insensitivity and indifference that Szakály displayed toward the victims of the Holocaust.

This time the government moved fast. Yesterday there was a meeting of the Jewish Civic Roundtable (Zsidó Közösségi Kerekasztal), comprised of Jewish leaders and members of the government, where Nándor Csepreghy, deputy to János Lázár, distanced the government from Sándor Szakály’s assertions. He indicated that János Lázár, who had left the meeting before the topic was brought up, was ready to discuss the matter further with MAZSIHISZ.

Naturally, this was not the end of the story. This afternoon János Lázár at his regular Thursday press conference announced the dismissal of László L. Simon, undersecretary in charge of the reconstruction of important historical monuments, and the “retirement” of Mrs. László Németh, undersecretary in charge of financial services and the post office. It was in connection with these dismissals that a reporter asked Lázár about the status of Sándor Szakály. The answer was that “in historical matters the government mustn’t take sides.” If a “scientific opinion” offends the interests or sensibilities of a community, then that group should exercise its rights against the offender. He himself is completely satisfied with Szakály’s work as director-general of the Veritas Institute.

I often see cautious journalists talking about organizations as being “close to Fidesz and/or the government.” Their circumspection is warranted. In the past, several law suits have been initiated against media outlets for not choosing their words carefully. But, in my opinion, there is no need to beat around the bush in the case of the Veritas Institute. It is a government research center, pure and simple. The Orbán government doesn’t even try to hide the fact the “employer” of the Veritas Institute is the government, which is represented by János Lázár. The law that established the institute in 2013 clearly states that it is Lázár who can appoint and/or dismiss the director-general, his two deputies, and the financial director of the institute. Mind you, the law also claims that the institute “functions independently,” but as long as the head of the Prime Minister’s Office can hire and fire the leadership of the institute one cannot talk about independence in any meaningful sense of the word.

János Lázár’s press conference made headlines not because of his praise of Szakály but because, in response to a question, he weighed in on how he would vote if a referendum were held in Hungary about exiting from the European Union. He said that he “wouldn’t be able to vote to remain in the European Union in good conscience” (jó szívvel). Of course, he immediately tried to blunt the sharpness of his statement by adding that he is still very much a supporter of Europe although he greatly objects to what’s going on in Brussels.

All democratic opposition parties immediately responded to Lázár’s outrageous remark. MSZP, DK, and Együtt, independently from one another, interpreted the announcement as an admission that the Orbán government wants to lead the country out of the union and that holding the referendum on refugee quotas is a first step in this direction. This idea is not at all new. Ever since Orbán announced the referendum, opposition leaders have warned the public of the dangers of participating in a vote that might be used by the Orbán government as an endorsement of their hidden agenda.

The government naturally denies the existence of such a plan. I am inclined to believe them. I find it difficult to imagine that the Orbán government would willingly forgo billions of euros and risk the political, economic, and social upheaval that would undoubtedly follow Hungary’s departure from the European Union.

What will Viktor Orbán say if Hungarians are discriminated?

What will Viktor Orbán say if Hungarians are discriminated against?

We have discussed at some length British xenophobia and racism as well as the reluctance of British politicians to point to racism as one of the reasons the Brits voted for Brexit. Well, Hungarian politicians don’t worry about appearances. Moreover, as Orbán has stressed often enough, they loathe politically correct speech. They like “honest talk,” which is missing in Western European countries. Thus, Lázár had no problem saying that “although there may be some demographic difficulties [in Hungary], the Hungarian government intends to remedy the situation not with African migrants but with Hungarians from the neighboring countries.” Fidesz politicians are not ashamed to share their racism in public. Yet during the same press conference he insisted on the rights of the mostly East European economic migrants in Great Britain, whose presence was at least in part responsible for the Brexit vote.

June 30, 2016

Stolen art from World War II in Hungarian museums: The Herzog case

It was almost five years ago that I devoted a post to the dispute between the Herzog family and the Hungarian government over the priceless pieces of art that are currently in the possession of several state-owned Hungarian museums, like the Museum of Fine Arts, the Hungarian National Gallery, and the Museum of Applied Arts. The Herzog collection is the largest unsettled case of stolen art during and after World War II, and Hungary has the dubious distinction of being the only country besides Russia that refuses to relinquish art stolen from European Jews.

Zurbarán, Cranach, the Elder, El Greco Credit: Hirko Masuike, The New York Times

Zurbarán, Cranach the Elder, El Greco
Credit: Hirko Masuike, The New York Times

In that post I concentrated on the legal aspects of the case because at the time three heirs of Baron Mór Lipót Herzog, after getting nowhere in Hungarian courts, decided to continue their efforts in the United States. The Hungarian government was certain that the case would be dismissed on the grounds that a U.S. court has no jurisdiction. But on September 1, 2011 Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle of the U.S. District Court in Washington rejected Hungary’s arguments in favor of dismissing the lawsuit. The most important consequence of this ruling was that Hungary had to provide a detailed description of all the art treasures of questionable origin held by state-owned museums as well as any other state institution. Up to that point Hungarian authorities had kept all information about these items secret, even though the country had signed several international agreements regarding the compensation of victims of the Holocaust.

After September 2011 I read practically nothing about the case, with the exception of one brief news item that appeared in Bloomberg. According to the article, dated April 16, 2013, “János Lázár, chief of staff to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, said that his office is preparing a list of works of art of disputed ownership in Hungarian museums with the aim of returning looted objects to the rightful owners.” The lawyer for the Herzogs in Hungary, Ágnes Peresztegi, was elated. She announced that “the decision has enabled the government to distance itself from the previous governments’ policy of attempting to use legal technicalities to avoid restitution of looted art.” David de Csepel, great-grandson of Lipót Herzog, who is in charge of the family’s legal efforts, was also optimistic. Yet, three years later the case still hasn’t been settled.

For the third time, the U.S. District Court of Washington, D.C. has just ruled in favor of the Herzog family. Most likely the Hungarian government will appeal again. As far as the list of looted items is concerned, we haven’t heard anything on the subject since Lázár’s announcement in 2013. However, I think everybody would be interested in what kind of an art collection we are talking about, so let me turn to Mór Lipót Herzog and his incredible collection.

The family would like to get back 44 paintings, although the original collection had over 2,200 items, which have either been lost or scattered all over the world. Just to give an idea of the value of these paintings, the government commissioner in charge of cataloguing art work said back in 1945 that “the Mór Herzog collection contains treasures the artistic value of which exceeds that of any similar collection, ranking just behind Madrid.”

The few paintings that Hungary got back from the American occupying forces in Germany made the Hungarian Museum of Fine Arts one of the important depositories of the works of El Greco. His The Agony in the Garden (c. 1608) alone is worth about $100 million, but several other paintings are also worth millions: Portrait of Saint Andrew, The Portrait of Saint Anthony of Padua, The Holy Family with Saint Anne, and The Disrobing of Christ, to mention a few. The loss of the El Greco paintings would mean a serious blow to the Museum of Fine Arts.

Baron Mór Lipót Herzog's study in the 1910s

Baron Mór Lipót Herzog’s study in the 1910s

Interestingly, not much can be found online about the Herzogs. Baron Mór Lipót csetei Herzog still has no entry in the Hungarian Wikipedia. The Magyar zsidó lexikon (1929) merely notes that he was an art collector. To learn more about him I had to turn to William O. McCagg, Jr’s invaluable book, Jewish Nobles and Geniuses in Modern Hungary (1972).

The founder of the family, Adolf Herzog, was a grain trader who became a wool and tobacco merchant after he arrived in Pest from Baranya County in 1836. His son Péter took over the firm in 1862. While his father just managed to survive, Péter made some very good investments in the 1860s and 1870s, as a result of which he became a prime shareholder in the Viktoria flour mill, which was one of Pest’s largest. He also remained active in the tobacco trade and became a major Central European handler of Balkan and Turkish tobacco. He dabbled in the Hungarian coal and chemical industries. And by 1900 the Herzogs also had an interest in a commercial bank. As McCagg says, “such was the dynamism of the Hungarian take-off economy, in sum, that the Herzogs, originally grain traders, became bankers.” (p. 153) Péter received nobility in 1886.

The Herzog family in 1931-1932

The Herzog family in 1931-1932

Mór Lipót, Péter’s son, was an extremely wealthy man who could spend huge sums of money on his passion, art. I might also add that he was married to Baroness Janka Hatvany Deutsch, a member of another wealthy and influential Hungarian-Jewish family, and their children married into the Weiss family, also one of the richest ennobled Jewish families of the era.

For many years we knew very little about the journey these paintings made in 1944-45, but lately we have learned quite a bit about the details from a study by Jennifer Otterson of Columbia University. Before the war, the collection was kept at the Herzogs’ house on Andrássy Boulevard. When Mór Lipót died in 1934, he left the collection to his daughter Erzsébet Herzog Weiss de Csepel and two sons, István and András. In April 1944 the Herzogs hid their art treasures in the cellar of one of the family’s factories, but the Nazis found the hiding place and took the art to Eichmann’s headquarters for inspection. Eichmann promptly shipped much of the looted collection to Germany. In 1946-47 the Americans returned paintings they recovered to the state of Hungary with the instruction that “the Hungarian museums [could] receive the paintings but only for the express purpose of safeguarding them until their owners could be identified and located.”

Some of the collection was taken by the Soviets, and a number of pieces ended up in the State Hermitage Museum, the Pushkin Museum, and in Nizhny Novgorod. How did they end up there? There are two possibilities. Either the Soviet Army took them directly from Budapest or the Nazis sent them to Germany, where they were then found by the Soviets and taken to Russia. By now, art historians who have studied the case are pretty certain that Soviet troops found the works in Germany.

How long will the Herzogs have to wait to get part of their property back? They have been waiting for the last seventy years, during which many of the heirs of Mór Lipót Herzog have died. David de Csepel is a relatively young man who was chosen to represent the family, mostly because of his age. The hope is that he will see the day when his great-grandfather’s collection is returned, in part, to the family.

There was one point at which it looked as if the two sides could come to a peaceful resolution of the claim. When István Hiller was minister of education and culture (2006-2010), the Herzogs offered to settle: they would have been satisfied with compensation amounting to 50% of the market value of the paintings. The Hungarian government decided against the settlement. I guess they are hoping that eventually even the 45-year-old David de Csepel will die and with him the case.

June 7, 2016

ANGELA MERKEL AND GERMANY FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE HUNGARIAN RIGHT. PART II

We left Mária Schmidt berating German journalists for being largely responsible for Hungary’s unsavory reputation in the West. She accuses them of being in the pay of the CIA, the German intelligence, and rich Arab countries. Here she relies on a book by Udo Ulfkotte, former editor of the Frankfuter Allgemeine Zeitung, titled Gekaufte Journalisten. Schmidt describes him as someone who is being deliberately passed over in silence because his revelations are so embarrassing to the German media.

So, who is this man? According to Wikipedia, the only source I found for information on his career, he spent a good twelve years in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Jordan. He was born into a Christian family but at the age of 21 declared himself to be an atheist. While in the Middle East he converted to Islam, which he later abandoned. He is now a born-again Christian.

As for his activities, I found an article by David Vickrey in German-American Opinion: Politics and Culture in which Ulfkotte is called a “fake journalist” and a “Putin propagandist.” According to the author, Ulfkotte “distinguished himself as a racist and anti-Islam hatemonger, demanding that all Muslims be deported from Germany in order to create more Lebensraum for ethnic Germans.”

Indeed, he was pretty well ignored in the last few years, but lately he was revitalized by two events: the Ukrainian crisis and the rise of the “Pegida movement” (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident). He began writing in Russian propaganda outlets and appeared as a speaker at Pegida gatherings. Earlier Vickrey reported that at one event organized by young social democrats protesting Ulfkotte’s speech on the dangers of immigration, he choked and threw a 15-year-old boy against the wall. Currently he is in hiding because, he claims, he received threats against his life.

Mária Schmidt seems to believe every word Udo Ulfkotte has ever uttered. She even managed to drag Boris Kálnoky of Die Welt into the controversy when she claimed that Kálnoky, whose parents left Hungary in 1947 and who learned Hungarian only as an adult, actually confirmed Ulkfotte’s allegations when in an interview on a Hungarian television station he said that he and his fellow journalists were told that, when writing about the migrants, they should concentrate on families and children. Later Kálnoky expressed his regret that Schmidt had misunderstood him. Perhaps his not quite perfect Hungarian was the reason for the misunderstanding. He was simply referring to readers’ interest in the travails of refugee families on the road.

That didn’t deter Mária Schmidt from retelling the story that Kálnoky denied. She reiterated that German journalists are instructed to present a positive picture of the migrants. In Germany “what really counts is the never-ending war against racism, anti-Semitism, and Hitler.” This from the woman who was entrusted with the establishment of a new Holocaust center, the House of Fate, specifically devoted to the children who were victims of the Holocaust. She has the audacity to complain about this “never-ending” fight.  Has she thought through what she is saying here? I guess if I confronted her about the exact meaning of this sentence she would tell me that I had taken the sentence out of context. She was talking only about “the leftist generation of 1968” who today think that they are the only ones who can make judgments about this issue. And then what? Would this be an acceptable explanation?

The much criticized selfie with a Syrian refugee

The much criticized Merkel selfie with a Syrian refugee

About half way through her text Schmidt completely lost her logical faculties, writing such sentences as “when as is her wont Chancellor Merkel talks about the sins of Europe and Germany, does she know that in the 17th and 18th centuries the Saracens (Muslims) carried off masses of Christians from Italy and sold them as slaves?… Perhaps she hasn’t heard of an Afghan custom which has been related by many ever since the 19th century that [the Afghans] cut off all four limbs of their English, Russian, and American prisoners of war?”

In this long harangue there are a couple of sentences that deserve more attention than the horror stories about cut-off limbs: “Does she [Merkel] believe that there were no mass murders on other continents? That at other places there was nothing to be ashamed of? … When will the Western European elite end this fruitless ritual of self-recrimination and self-abandonment?” Here Schmidt first of all equates the Holocaust with other mass murders and, second, pretty well tells the Western Europeans to forget about what happened to the Jewish population of the European Continent.

In the last few weeks Viktor Orbán accused Angela Merkel of not being democratic enough because she doesn’t listen to the people. Hungary is vastly superior to Germany in this respect: they introduced several national consultations and at the moment Fidesz is collecting signatures against the quota system. Schmidt decided to chime in and teach Merkel a thing or two about democracy. The proof that “Merkel can’t stand democracy” is that she prefers grand coalitions, and therefore it is practically impossible to distinguish the right and the left “especially if they are both gray and boring.” Schmidt is convinced that the reason for these grand coalitions is Merkel’s lack of democratic commitment. What she most likely purposely neglected to say is that in all three cases the reason for these grand coalitions was the refusal of the greens and the social democrats to form a government with the communist party (Linkspartei), not Merkel’s anti-democratic impulses.

What else is Merkel guilty of? Merkel and the ruling elite’s goal is “to replace the Germans and Europeans with a multi-cultural, globalized, and Muslim population. The only thing that matters is cheap labor.” In fact, Merkel can’t stand either the Germans or the Europeans in general. “She especially hates the Germans who will always remain Nazis and collectively guilty.” She is not a compassionate person when it comes to her own kind. “She never quotes from German books. She never talks about German history. And when she does, it would be better if she didn’t because it is always about the Holocaust.”

“Western Europe with its media and politicians see value everywhere except in their own. What moves them is self-hatred. And the greatest problem is that they have completely depleted their democracies.” The migrant crisis for this people comes in handy because again “they can prove their ideological commitment against racism, fascism (whatever they mean by it), and clericalism, while they affirm their allegiance to multiculturalism.”

I’m trying to be charitable, but on the basis on this text I consider Mária Schmidt to be guilty of Holocaust relativism, if not much worse.

A compulsory course on the Holocaust at the Hungarian Catholic University

While the world is preoccupied with Greece and Viktor Orbán’s preparations to erect a fence along the Hungarian border with Serbia, I decided to focus today on the debate over Péter Pázmány Catholic University’s decision to introduce a compulsory course on the Holocaust. Until now there was only one compulsory course, “Introduction to the Catholic Faith,” which I understand, to put it mildly, is not taken seriously by the students. According to someone who is most likely a student at PPKE, as the university is known, “it is a joke,” a course in which everybody cheats.

President Szabolcs Szuromi and Ilan Mor at the press conference

President Szabolcs Szuromi and Ilan Mor at the press conference

On May 26 Szabolcs Szuromi, the president of PPKE, in the presence of Ilan Mor, Israeli ambassador to Hungary, held a press conference, which was disrupted by two “journalists” from Alfahír and Kurucinfo. The former is the semi-official internet site of Jobbik. Kurucinfo, the virulent anti-Semitic media outlet, needs no introduction. Both men fired all sorts of provocative questions at the president and the ambassador.

The reaction of the far right didn’t surprise anyone. They especially objected to the presence and role of Ambassador Mor and to the fact that two Israeli historians, Dina Porat and Raphael Vago, had been asked to prepare the syllabus for the course. Jobbegyenes (Straight Right) accused the Hungarian government of taking orders from the Israeli ambassador when it agreed to the removal of a sign referring to “the victims of Gaza” behind the Hungarian entrant at the Eurovision competition. Moreover, according to the author, it is not PPKE’s job to teach students about the Holocaust. They should have learned that in high school.

Zsolt Bayer’s reaction was also expected. In his opinion, there is just too much talk about the Holocaust. Practically every day there is a new book, a movie, or a theater performance. A few years ago he “thought that one couldn’t sink lower” when he read in Népszabadság that grandchildren of German war criminals, with the financial help of the European Union, had arrived in Budapest asking for forgiveness from elderly survivors. In Bayer’s opinion it was a perverse idea. The souls of these youngsters are “infected with guilt.” What is going on at PPKE is also a perversion. In fact, Bayer thinks PPKE’s decision was even worse than the grandchildren’s apology.

But there were critical remarks on the left as well. The most serious criticism came from Sándor Révész. He objected to the compulsory nature of the course and predicted that “within seconds” someone will suggest “a compulsory course on Trianon, on the communist dictatorship, on religious persecution,” and so on and so forth. In fact, Gábor Vona and Dóra Duró of Jobbik already sent a letter to the president of PPKE asking for the introduction of a course on the tragedy of Trianon.

Révész also found PPKE’s decision to introduce such a course problematic because it is a well-known fact that the Catholic Church still venerates Ottokár Prohászka (1858-1927), bishop of Székesfehérvár, who was a rabid anti-Semite and the ideological precursor of Hungarism, the Hungarian version of Nazism. Révész called attention to the fact that the Hungarian Catholic Church published a collection of Prohászka’s most savage anti-Semitic writings titled My anti-Semitism in 1942. “Is PPKE ready to reevaluate the opus of Ottokár Prohászka in connection with the Holocaust?” asked Révész.

There is criticism coming from historians as well. László Karsai, a historian who has written extensively on the Holocaust, finds it strange that two Israeli scholars were invited to prepare the syllabus when there are many Hungarians qualified to do the job. Moreover, Karsai finds the syllabus as well as the readings wanting. Some books on the reading list are of inferior quality. If he had children at PPKE, he wouldn’t advise them to take the course–not that they would have a choice. He added, however, that “it is an interesting experiment that might generate some lively discussions.”

Péter György, professor at ELTE, just announced that they themselves have been thinking about creating three one-semester courses that all students of the Faculty of Arts would have to take: the cultural history of racism, social theory, and the philosophy of science.  In the course on the cultural history of racism students would also study about the Holocaust. The members of the faculty realize, I think, that something went very wrong at the university since a large portion of the Jobbik leadership graduated from ELTE with a degree in history. Although they don’t want to meddle in the worldview of students, they believe that they should be able to fend off blind prejudice and racism. György admitted that “radicalism” is a very serious problem at ELTE and “the university has no other antidote than arming the students with the necessary knowledge.” He was very pleased when he heard about PPKE’s decision and he, unlike Révész, trusts the faculty of the university to face the past honestly.

It was Elek Tokfalvi, one of my favorite publicists, who was truly enthusiastic about the course. In his opinion, what happened in Hungary was unique in the history of the Holocaust because the Hungarian Jewish community’s destruction began after all the others’ had already ended. Therefore, studying the Hungarian Holocaust is warranted. Tokfalvi looks upon PPKE’s decision to introduce a course on the Holocaust as a “moral redemption” after decades of the undisturbed spread of anti-liberalism, anti-capitalism, ethnic superiority. “Therefore, it deserves praise.” In his opinion, other universities should follow PPKE’s example.” Perhaps it would also be beneficial to teach basic values that would “counterbalance the anti-Semitism of university graduates.” The same idea that Péter György is advocating.

One thing is certain. It s not enough to introduce a course on the Holocaust. As long as people like the economist Katalin Botos give lectures like the one available in part on YouTube, no change in attitudes can be expected.

It might also be a good idea if György Fodor, dean of the Divinity School, and others would take a more critical look at Ottokár Prohászka and the Catholic Church’s attitudes past and present concerning anti-Semitism and racism because, for the most part, the church leaders did very little, or nothing.

“Son of Saul” and its reception by the Hungarian right

A month ago Medián conducted a survey on the current state of anti-Semitism in Hungary. This was Medián’s fourth such survey since 2006, and the results are not exactly heartwarming. During this period Medián measured the number of extreme and moderate anti-Semites as well as those who are free of anti-Jewish prejudice. The good news is that the number of extreme and moderate anti-Semites dropped from 38% to 32% between 2013 and 2014, but of course this is still way too high in comparison to the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, or Denmark, although it is more in line with some other Western European countries such as France and Spain. For a handy comparison, see the Anti-Defamation League’s Global 100.

Jobbik, Hungary’s neo-Nazi party, is well known as a racist organization which has two arch-enemies, the Jews and the Roma. Although Gábor Vona, the party leader, believes that the party ought to move more to the center of the ideological spectrum to attract larger popular support, many members of the top leadership are staunch anti-Semites who have serious reservations about the new strategy. Moreover, as the Medián survey illustrates, 75% of Jobbik voters are also anti-Semitic.

It is difficult to keep the Jobbik party members in line, especially when there is a hot topic that stirs up the Hungarian anti-Semitic crowd–in this case, the new film “Son of Saul,” which just won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.

No one, except for the people at Cannes, have seen the film yet, but critics find it exceptional. For example, “no single entry in this year’s competition impressed more than first-time Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’ ‘Son of Saul,'” or “‘remarkable’ may not do Laszlo Nemes’ holocaust drama ‘Son of Saul’ justice.” By all indications, the film might be a strong contender for next year’s Oscar.

László Nemes, director of Son of Saul in Cannes

László Nemes, director of Son of Saul, in Cannes

But the far-right crowd, including some of the leaders of Jobbik, are not at all happy. They were already outraged when Imre Kertész won the Nobel Prize for his book “Fateless” in 2002. As far as they were concerned, the book was not good literature and Kertész received the prize only because the Holocaust is a theme guaranteed to garner acclaim in literature as well as in the film industry.

László Nemes, the young director of the film, tried to get money for the production from all over the world, but in the end it was the Hungarian government’s fund for the arts that underwrote 75% of the project. When the funding decision was made in 2013, Előd Novák, one of the most outspoken anti-Semites of Jobbik, complained bitterly. He pointed out that this was the second film on the Hungarian Holocaust that had been paid for by the Hungarian government. The first one, directed by Lajos Koltai, was based on Kertész’s book (2005). Novák grumbled that “Fateless” had received 920 million forints, and now another Holocaust film was getting 205 million. Moreover, the committee also allocated 4.5 million forints for the development of a movie script (“The Lawyer”) about the trial of the Jews accused of ritual murder in Tiszaeszlár in 1882, “naturally written from the point of view of the lawyer who defended the Jews.” Instead of such films, he argued, the Hungarian government should support films about national heroes and great moments in Hungarian history–for example, the Battle of Pozsony (Pressburg/Bratislava) of 907 or the Ragged Guard (Rongyos gárda) that defended the western borders of Hungary in 1921. Novák called all this interest in the events of 1944 no more than “Holocaust industry.”

Novák is not impressed by the success of “Son of Saul.” He wrote on his Facebook page a couple of days ago : “Now they expect me to fall on my face because of the international success of the Hungarian Holocaust film. But it is not merely a joke to say that the greatest holiday of the Jews is the day the Oscars are given out…. Kate Winslet confessed that she decided to take a role in a Holocaust movie because then an Oscar is guaranteed. Earlier she had been nominated four times, but didn’t win once.” Winslet received the Oscar for her role in “The Reader” (2008).

For the government and its supporters, the fact that it was a government grant that made the production of “Son of Saul” possible comes in very handy. A group of right-wingers on HírTV who discussed the film had difficulty mustering enthusiasm for the prize and often referred to the Holocaust as a theme that guarantees critical success. One of the participants thought that “picking the Holocaust as his subject was a clever move on the part of a first-time director.” But, however critical they might be, they argued that the production of a film about the Holocaust “proves that there is no anti-Semitism in Hungary.”

György Dörner, the far-right director of Új Színház whose appointment by Mayor István Tarlós was accompanied by demonstrations and protests, expressed his hope that László Nemes’s next film will be about that great battle between Árpád and the Bavarians in 907. Előd Novák’s views on the real task of the Hungarian film industry must have made a great impression on Dörner.

The Orbán government is trying to change the general perception that it doesn’t do enough to combat anti-Semitism in the country. Today I read with astonishment that from here on students at the Péter Pázmány Catholic University will be required to take a course on the Holocaust. Keep in mind that the Catholic University is an institution close to the heart of policy makers. The rector of the university explained that he had been impressed by the view of Israeli Ambassador Ilan Mor that days of remembrance are not enough, that something new and different is needed to make a real impact. The one-semester course will be called “The Holocaust and Remembrance.” It seems that there is already a compulsory course called “Introduction to Catholic Teaching.” The right-wing reaction to the Catholic University’s decision is predictable.

As for “Son of Saul,” once it is available for public viewing, I suspect there will be a very serious discussion about the accuracy of its depiction of Saul as a member of the camp’s Sonderkommando. One such article already appeared in mandiner.hu.

Resistance to a school closing in Budapest

Can you imagine a developed country anywhere in the world where closing a high school is subject to cabinet approval? It’s hard to imagine, but there is one that lies “in the heart of Europe.” Of course, I’m talking about Hungary, where unfortunately “the heart” is often missing from decisions reached by the country’s political leaders.

Those of you who have been following Hungarian politics already know that I’m talking about the Raoul Wallenberg School, which teaches “human studies,” such as health care, social work, and special education. The school trains healthcare workers (nurses, dental assistants, pharmacy assistants, ambulance nurses, etc.), social care providers (social assistants, child caregivers), and special education assistants.  The school was completely renovated ten years ago and cost 3 billion forints. The money, as usual, came from the European Union and, this time, also from Sweden. Since the year 2004 the school has borne the name of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who in 1944 saved several thousand Jewish citizens from certain death in Auschwitz and other extermination camps in Germany. The school has developed close relationships with schools in other European countries. They have yearly student exchange programs, scholarships, teachers’ visits, and conferences. All in all, “Raoul,” as everybody calls the school, is considered to be the best of its kind in Hungary.

So, why did the Orbán government decide to close it and scatter its 1,200 students and 70 teachers among six different vocational schools that don’t teach the subjects Wallenberg specializes in? The schools designated to receive “Raoul” students teach such trades as bricklaying, carpentry, and plumbing. All this was decided in two minutes at a cabinet meeting on March 18. In early April the principal of the school was told that, as of the end of the school year sometime in June, the Raoul Wallenberg School will be no more. And, she was warned, she cannot tell a soul about the school closing. No reason for the sudden decision was given.

It didn’t take long before everybody knew that the building that housed the Wallenberg School will be taken over by the new Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetem/National Civil Service University. The expanding new university needs the space. The next victim most likely will be the Museum of Natural Sciences. The administration of the Wallenberg School knew that sooner or later they would have to evacuate the building, but they felt safe until at least April 30, 2016, because the EU grants Hungary received required that they remain in the same building for at least fifteen years. Well, the Hungarian government decided otherwise.

The way the government handled this case is typical. First, decisions are reached in secrecy, so there is no opportunity for those affected by the decisions to express their views. Second, the authorities don’t bother with rules and regulations. In the case of a contemplated school closing, there must be discussions with school boards, parents, teacher’s unions, etc. Of course, none of these people was consulted. Third, it really doesn’t matter what objections are voiced. The government goes full steam ahead anyway. Fourth, if there is trouble, as there was in this case, they send in a man who has no authority to make any decision. Fifth, they would like, if at all possible, to keep the media away. In this case, they also forbade the principal to talk to reporters. And finally, the last word is always that of the highest authority, who is Viktor Orbán himself. Even the minister of education cannot decide on a simple school closing without “the approval of the government.” What a country.

But sometimes the government meets stiff resistance and is forced to make concessions. It took about a week, but it now looks as if the Raoul Wallenberg School will continue as a unit, we just don’t know where. Since the city of Budapest will have only a couple of months to ready a building to receive a school currently equipped with special classrooms and equipment to teach healthcare subjects, it is hard to imagine that the school can open its doors in September. But, still, school officials are relieved and grateful. How did the administration of the school manage to win against the almighty state? Everybody involved refused to obey the order to keep quiet, and they all acted together: school officials, students, teachers, parents, and trade unions.

Heart and Sul of Raoul I will be a student of Raoul as long as I live

Heart of Raoul, Soul of Raoul–I will be a student of Raoul as long as I live

Although the principal was forbidden to speak, the deputy principal bravely went to ATV and told her story. She was impressive and fearless. The journalists, who initially were not allowed to attend a meeting of students, parents, and teachers with an official of the Klebelsberg Kunó Intézményfenntartó Központ (KLIK), the mammoth office in charge of all Hungarian elementary and high schools, ignored the instructions and gave vivid descriptions of the tumultuous gathering of at least a thousand people. Brave and surprisingly articulate fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds barraged the hapless KLIK representative with hundreds of questions and criticisms until he himself admitted that he doesn’t agree with the decision. Leaders of both teacher’s unions were present and threatened KLIK with a law suit. After the meeting, it became clear that this crowd could not be easily appeased. The closing of the Wallenberg School would be another scandal.

And we mustn’t forget about the outside help the school’s defenders received. The ELTE students who had already twice demonstrated against the government’s trampling on the autonomy of the universities decided to add to their own grievances the unfair treatment of the Raoul Wallenberg School. Their last demonstration ended in front of the Wallenberg School.

Both the Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of Hungarian Jewish communities, and the Raoul Wallenberg Society and Foundation also raised their voices in defense of the school. After all, this is the only school in the country that bears the name of Wallenberg. The Raoul Wallenberg Society was especially upset because in the last six years the Society, together with the Holocaust Memorial Center and the Wallenberg School, had organized a program called “Was it a long time ago? Where was it?” If you want to know more about the program, take a look at the Society’s online site. It sounds fascinating. Clearly, in the Wallenberg School students learned more than the normally prescribed subjects. The school took seriously the message of Wallenberg’s activities in Hungary.

It is not over yet, but Zoltán Balog showed up at the school yesterday and announced the change of plans. It is hard to tell why he decided to give in. Perhaps because his hands are full of other troubles concerning healthcare and the so-called reforms of higher education? Or was it the united front formed by teachers, students, parents, and trade union leaders? Was he worried about abolishing a school that bears Raoul Wallenberg’s name? Perhaps a combination of all of these things.

People are increasingly pushing back against the government and perhaps standing a little taller.