Tag Archives: Holocaust

László Eörsi: The Red Cross Informant

Years ago Robin W. Winks, a professor of history at Yale University, edited a book titled The Historian As Detective: Essays on Evidence. And indeed, historians often comb through information from a variety of sources until they experience their aha moment. Something like that happened to László Eörsi, the historian whose encyclopedic knowledge of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 is legendary. I’m convinced that Eörsi knows exactly happened at every street corner during those thirteen days, in Budapest as well as other cities and towns in Hungary. But his research this time led him far afield: to 1944-45 and the Swedish Red Cross’s efforts at saving the lives of Hungarian Jews. It is a fascinating story with a twist at the end.

* * * 

I stumbled upon Zoltán Harangi’s name as a researcher of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Harangi had joined one of the rebel groups in Budapest, but during the struggle for freedom, he contacted the organizations of state security and ended up informing on his fellow fighters. Following this, he served as an informant for 15 years during the Kádár regime, causing numerous tragedies.

There are few sources detailing certain parts of Zoltán Harangi’s life journey. One of these mysteries is how he was able to become an employee of the Swedish embassy, especially considering that he was trained as a collier, completed a college degree in landscaping and had a criminal record with 11 counts of theft and two charges of receiving stolen goods.

At age 31, in June 1944, he became a founding member of the Swedish Red Cross and was given several confidential assignments. He directed the Red Cross’ investigations unit, thus it was up to him to oversee the screening of employees and he also addressed complaints relating to the organization. In June 1944, the Swedish Red Cross took under its protection the Körönd Rehabilitation Centre in Budapest, where Jews under the protection of the Sweden were housed. According to several victim testimonies, some doctors – especially Aurél Stürmer Lovassy – consistently blackmailed the persecuted, demanding money from them, in exchange for extending their stay in the building.

Zoltán Harangi's picture from his Swedish I.D.

Zoltán Harangi’s picture from his Swedish I.D.

On November 25, 1944, Harangi reported the rehabilitation centre to the Arrow Cross party secretary in Budapest’s third district, Zoltán Nagyiványi. Nagyiványi in turn assigned János Traum, a master painter, who also served in the party’s district association, with the investigation of the situation. On the same night, the Arrow Cross removed 40 Jews, taking them to district party headquarters (171 Bécsi Road). They deemed the letters indicating that they were protected by Sweden as invalid. A total of 12 or 13 Jews were executed and others were tortured. The next day, Harangi was essentially forced to change his tune, as alongside the leader of the Swedish Red Cross, Langlet Waldermár, he visited the director of the Prime Minister’s Office’s Press Department, Ferenc Fiala, where he advocated on behalf of the deported. Based on Fiala’s decision, they transported back the deported Jews to the rehabilitation centre.

Harangi, however, provided the Arrow Cross with further information. On December 13th, they entered the headquarters of the Swedish Red Cross, right into the areas of the building where those escaping forced labour were hiding. Only three people, including Harangi, knew of this hiding place, thus the Red Cross became suspicious and Harangi was moved to a different department. As of this point, the Arrow Cross did not receive any further information.

During the German occupation Harangi blackmailed, robbed and reported on a woman, who in the end was deported to Auschwitz, where she died. “I met with Zoltán Harangi about three weeks prior,” noted Pál Rákosi, the husband of the woman who fell victim to such a tragic fate, in a June 1945 police report. “I did not dare to confront him, because he was in the company of a Russian officer, and you as well told me that he was serving with the GPU, as a detective,” he added. After the war, Harangi was on the hunt for Arrow Cross members and Volkbundists, in areas of Budapest controlled by the Soviets. While he searched apartments in the city, he also went about robbing them. In fact, he took the 3rd district, Darázs Street apartment of a Hungarian Jew who fled to Palestine. On April 19, 1945, Harangi was taken into custody, but he continued to make use of his skills. “I worked as a notetaker in the correctional facility and I could move freely and I was able to decide who, in addition to myself, could serve as notetakers”—wrote Harangi in a report from 1961. At the time, it was suggested that Harangi may also know of the disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish ambassador in Budapest, or that he may have been “actively involved in this.” Based on 15 eyewitness testimonies, the Tutsek Council decided to confiscate all of Harangi’s property in June 1949, and also sentenced him to 10 years of forced labour. According to the sentencing document, Harangi “deported the persecuted, several dozen people fell victim to his deeds, and he was driven by malicious intent.” Half a year later, István Aradi reduced his sentence by half, whilst noting that the war crimes conviction still stands.

Harangi was released in February 1952, but before the end of the year, he committed a break and entry, which resulted in a sentence of 12 years. But on October 30th, 1956, he was released from the correctional facility by the revolutionaries. We have data showing that until 1972, he collaborated with the Kádár regime. He lived until 1998.

My Hungarian-language study of Harangi appeared in March 2012, months before Harangi received from Yad Vashem the Righteous Among the Nations award. It is all but impossible that someone else would bear the same name, as the listed profession and date of birth is identical. We find it implausible that Haragi would have saved anyone’s life, as he would have referred to this in his defence, during his trial. But there is no mention of this anywhere during the proceedings. In fact, he never made made mention of saving lives in any of his later reports. Consequently, I ask Yad Vashem to review its decision.

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.

Mária Schmidt exploits Imre Kertész to bolster her own historical revisionism

Mária Schmidt, in an interview with Olga Kálmán on ATV yesterday, claimed that her writing an article about Imre Kertész, the Nobel Prize winning Hungarian author, at this particular time had nothing to do with the news released at the same time that Kertész will be one of the recipients of the Order of St. Stephen, currently the highest decoration the Hungarian state can bestow. It was pure coincidence. She just happened to be reading a lot of Kertész, especially two of his lesser known works, and suddenly it occurred to her that Imre Kertész has been totally neglected by left-of-center liberal intellectuals. Showing her contempt for these people, she kept calling them the “szoclib” crowd. And why do these people neglect him? Because they, who previously served the Kádár regime, cannot forgive Kertész for equating Soviet-style totalitarian dictatorship with Nazism.

Schmidt is dismayed that especially as we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust Imre Kertész’s name is hardly mentioned when, after all, he is the most famous Hungarian Holocaust survivor. Mária Schmidt is correct that Imre Kertész does not figure large in public discourse nowadays, but I disagree with her on the reasons for this relative neglect.

First, I would like to set the record straight. Kertész, after receiving the Nobel Prize, was attacked not by the “szoclib” crowd but by the extreme right, while the more moderate right just ignored him. In his diaries Kertész does complain about some Hungarian Jews on the left who were not enthusiastic about his receiving the prize, but they were few and far between. Those who actually burned his books were the far right. Mária Schmidt says not a word about this right-wing reaction to Kertész. When Olga Kálmán asked her about this omission, the only thing she could say was that she didn’t stoop so low as to mention them. A lame excuse. I might add that one of those right wingers who doesn’t consider Kertész to be a Hungarian writer will also receive a decoration from the government tomorrow.

And now a few thoughts about the absence of Imre Kertész from the public discourse of the last few months over the events of 1944. The debate has been about history, historical truth. Imre Kertész cannot add anything to our knowledge on that score. The argument is over the role of Hungary in the drama. Kertész is not only not interested in that topic but has a most unhistorical interpretation of the Holocaust. Here are a couple of examples of his rather startling remarks about the Shoa. “I have never considered the Holocaust a German-Jewish war; rather the method of a totalitarian regime,” he said in his famous interview entitled “Ich war ein Holocaust-Clown” that appeared in Die Zeit in September 2013. What can someone who is interested in the history of the Holocaust do with such a definition?  Not much. Or “I’m not interested in literature. Literature is of secondary importance. I only wanted to find the language to describe the phenomenon of totalitarianism. My whole work is about the alienated man of the 20th century.” Again, for those interested in questions surrounding the Hungarian Holocaust these words are not exactly helpful.

Holocaust3

I think that Kertész was on the right track when he blamed his relative neglect in discussions centering on the Holocaust on his “radical thinking.” He is indeed radical when he talks about the “ambitious generation of Holocaust liars, who rely on sentimentalism, assimilative dictatorship and profit-oriented business.” About whom is Kertész talking? Or, elsewhere: “The main point here is not what happened to the Jewish people but what happened to European values.” Of course, it is very important to consider what happened to European values, but how can anyone say that what happened to the Jewish people is not the main point?

Well, Mária Schmidt can and did. In one of her earlier works she stated that “World War II is not about the Jews, not about genocide. However regrettable, the Holocaust and the destruction or rescue of the Jews was of minor importance, one could say a marginal issue, which was not among the military goals of either side.”

It’s no wonder that Schmidt found a kindred soul in Kertész when she discovered quotations that support her own revisionist history. She quotes Kertész as saying that “the Holocaust does not divide but unites us, because it increasingly shows the universal nature of the experience.” For Schmidt this sentence provides justification for the government’s decision to lump together all the victims of the German occupation. Yes, I know it’s a stretch, but I’m sure this is how her mind works. In her earlier writings on the Holocaust she wrote about the Jews’ “inherited” suffering. After all, the survivors’ children and grandchildren are no longer victims, she claims. Kertész’s views support her thesis that there is nothing special about the suffering of the Jews. After all, everybody was touched by these dictatorships and everyone who lived through them suffered.

All in all, it seems to me that Schmidt is trying to use a writer’s ahistorical views to justify her own revisionist view of history. Kertész’s main concerns are philosophical and moral. He is searching for the meaning of his experiences. I’m sure that one day there will be many studies of Kertész’s philosophical ruminations, but Kertész cannot help us when it comes to a historical evaluation of the Holocaust.

Mária Schmidt’s revisionist history of World War II and the Holocaust. Part I

Until now I rarely mentioned the name of Mária Schmidt, a historian, although she certainly deserves more than a fleeting glimpse. The more I’ve studied her writings the more I’ve become convinced that Mária Schmidt is the chief ideologist of the current government’s very controversial views on history.

First, let’s go back a little bit and take a look at her professional career. She received a B.A., majoring in German and history; her interest at that point was the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. At least she wrote her senior essay on the attempts of certain politicians to reconstruct the dual monarchy and create a multi-ethnic federation. Sometime in the mid-1980s she switched topics and began doing research on questions concerning the modern history of Hungarian Jewry. Her patron was the famous Hungarian historian, György Ránki, who for a number of years was in charge of the Institute of Hungarian Studies at Indiana University.

Schmidt Mária

Mária Schmidt / Source: 168 Óra

Her connection with Ránki was fruitful. In 1985 she received a three-year scholarship from MTI and the Soros Foundation. In 1988-89 she spent two months in Jerusalem at the Yad Vashem Institute. A few months later she was back in Israel on another year-long scholarship at Tel Aviv University. As soon as that was over, she received another scholarship to do research in Berlin. She was one of the young Hungarian historians who had plenty of opportunities to become serious scholars. They could travel, they spoke foreign languages, they had the opportunity to be in the company of scholars from all over the world.

These details of her early career are similar to those of other historians who today find her views abhorrent. It is hard to know exactly when Mária Schmidt discovered that she was in fact a right-wing nationalist and a revisionist, but by 1998 she became one of Viktor Orbán’s “chief advisers.” Her influence on the prime minister’s historical views is unmistakable. I’m afraid we can blame Mária Schmidt for the Orbán regime’s wholesale falsification of modern Hungary history. And, I’m afraid, also for the monument that will most likely be raised soon depicting Hungary as the innocent victim of German aggression.

Mária Schmidt might have been a serious historian in the 1980s, but by now her scholarship is highly suspect. A cursory look at her works reveals that most of her books and articles are of a popular nature. Works based on original research are hard to find on her long list of contributions. But how could she do serious and sustained work when she is the director of the House of Terror and two foundations? In addition, she teaches at the Péter Pázmány Catholic University, and she just received another job, currently in limbo, to create a new Hungarian Holocaust Museum dedicated to the child victims.

One cannot call her an independent scholar either because of her far too close relationship with the present government. In fact, a few years back a reporter from Népszava asked Schmidt about her lack of independence. Her answer revealed her unique view of history. According to her, writing history makes sense “only if it is about politics. Who is interested in what happened one or two hundred years ago unless we want to say something about the present?”

Those who want to know more about Mária Schmidt should read the relevant passages of Professor Randolph L. Braham’s “The Assault on the Historical Memory of the Holocaust” that appeared in Hungarian Spectrum. Here I would like to concentrate on an article of hers that was published in a book entitled Diktaturák ördögszekerén. It is about “Political justice in post-war Europe.” The short article is an apology of Germany’s involvement in the war and a condemnation of the Allies who after World War II “forced the vanquished states to take upon themselves the moral, political, and economic responsibility” for the outbreak of the war. The victorious allies without any legal justification brought individuals to justice. At the time of these political trials the Allies promised that all war crimes would be punished in the future, but this turned out not to be the case. Schmidt brings up the bombing of Dresden and the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as war crimes that went unpunished.

According to Schmidt, the legal proceedings against the war criminals, in Nuremberg and in other countries, including Hungary, “were political trials that served political purposes and therefore they brought alien elements to the jurisdictional system.” She finds it reprehensible that “the Allies themselves wanted to destroy the Nazi elite … instead of allowing the German people to get rid of its leaders who became burdensome [tehertétel].” The Allies already in October 1943 contemplated sending war criminals back to their home countries, which obviously Schmidt finds outrageous because she continues: “Similar absurd plans were contemplated concerning Japan.”

Although the article for the most part deals with the political trials of Nazi war criminals, it also contains telling sentences about Mária Schmidt’s views on the Holocaust and the Jewish question. Among those who received death sentences in Nuremberg, she specifically mentions Julius Streicher, editor-in-chief of Der Stürmer, an anti-Semitic newspaper, who was found guilty of crimes against humanity. In her opinion, his sentence was not justified. After all, he was not a public servant; he had no party affiliation; he did not kill anyone; and he did not order anyone to kill. He only incited and spread hate. So, Schmidt doesn’t understand how he could be charged with “an international crime.”

There is an even more puzzling sentence that concerns the Holocaust in this article. Her problem is still with the notion of “crimes against humanity” and that among these crimes the judges at Nuremberg listed the “Nazi genocide against the Jews.” She asserts that the Holocaust was “only one of the many crimes of the Nazi leaders.” This sentence is puzzling in itself because I don’t think that anyone at the time claimed that Nazi crimes consisted only of the Holocaust. The footnote that follows this passage is even more baffling. Let me quote it in full: “Therefore they organized the Eichmann trial in Israel that placed the Nazi genocide against the Jewish people on center stage. It was in this way that they called the attention of the mostly indifferent world to the issue.”

What does Mária Schmidt want to say here? That too much emphasis was put on the Holocaust but it didn’t really work and people became tired of hearing all about it? But then they, I assume the Jews, decided to hold the Eichmann trial in Israel in order to bring the notion of Nazi guilt into the forefront? This muddled passage might be the result of a confused mind, but there is a good possibility that there are other considerations at work in Schmidt’s head.

Let’s move on to Hungary and the people’s courts that were set up in 1945. What is Schmidt’s opinion of these trials? She hides behind the claim of an unnamed minister of justice at the time, according to whom “the goal of the trials was not to serve justice but politics and revenge.” Schmidt’s favorite victim of these trials is László Bárdossy, prime minister between April 3, 1941, and March 9, 1942. According to Schmidt, “with the person of László Bárdossy the court wanted to sit in judgment of the whole Horthy regime, the Hungarian upper-middle classes [magyar úri középosztály], and its political elite.”

Of course, one could spend a great deal more time on Mária Schmidt’s views on war guilt, justice, and crimes against humanity, but I hope that even from this brief summary readers will realize her revisionist take on Germany’s role in the war.  And although the article is really about the trials of war criminals, one can sense Schmidt’s ambivalent attitude toward the Holocaust and its significance.

Tomorrow I will take a look at another article in the same volume that is specifically about the Holocaust’s place in the modern history of Hungarian Jewry.

Viktor Orbán shapes the Holocaust Memorial Year

While Viktor Orbán was composing his letter, described by the philosopher Ágnes Heller as the handiwork of Moliére’s Tartuffe, the pious fraud who managed to fool his benefactor and his wife with his pretensions of divine authority, the Orbán regime’s political machine continued preparing the ground for its own version of the Holocaust Memorial Year, for the most part unadulterated by Jewish input.

Today I’ll focus on two events: (1) the agreement of cooperation between the Veritas Institute and the Holocaust Documentation and Memorial Center and (2) the meeting between members of the government and representatives of Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization for several Jewish communities. As I already noted a few days ago, the Veritas Historical Institute, directed by Sándor Szakály, and the Holocaust Documentation and Memorial Center, represented by György Haraszti, chairman of the board, signed an agreement of cooperation. Leaders of Mazsihisz and other Jewish organizations were stunned. Szakály and Haraszti have already agreed on some conferences that will be jointly sponsored by the two institutions.

The first conference will deal with the period between the German and Russian “occupations.” A sidenote: The word used in connection with the arrival of the Soviet troops is a matter of controversy of an ideological nature. There is no question that for the remaining Jewish population of Hungary the Soviet arrival was a “liberation” (felszabadulás), and therefore the Holocaust Center’s acquiescence in using the word “occupation” (megszállás) is unfortunate. Although admittedly most non-Jewish Hungarians feared the arrival of the Soviet troops, calling the event a foreign occupation is simplistic. It does, however, jibe with the Hungarian constitution’s (and Orbán’s) view of Hungary’s lost independence. The Germans took it away in 1944, and after the war the Allies that defeated Hitler’s Germany (which, after all, included the Soviet Union) continued to deny Hungary its independence. Hungary was a powerless, and hence innocent, nation; all the power, and all the responsibility, lay in the hands of its occupiers.

Monument of the March for Life, Budapest / Work of Zénó Kelemen

Monument of the March for Life, Budapest / Work of Zénó Kelemen

Now back to the controversial agreement between the Veritas Institute and the Holocaust Center. Historian Szabolcs Szita, the temporary director of the Holocaust Center, knew nothing about the negotiations between Haraszti and Szakály. Szita was named director three years ago and his appointment is coming to an end on May 3. No one knows who his successor will be. One thing is sure: he wasn’t encouraged to reapply. György Haraszti, on the other hand, obviously has very good relations with the Orbán government. He was named chairman of the board shortly after the election of 2010. He is also a professor at the Országos Rabbiképző–Zsidó Egyetem, the rabbinical school and Jewish university that is under the supervision of Mazsihisz.

As a result of his agreement with the Horthy-loving Szakály, a man Mazsihisz demanded the government replace with a more reputable historian, Haraszti was asked to leave all his positions at the rabbinical school at the end of the current academic year. I’m not worried about his future, however. The Orbán government takes good care of its own. As for topic two, at the request of Viktor Orbán a meeting with the leaders of Mazsihisz was arranged for April 30th, the same day Orbán released his letter to Katalin Dávid. The government was represented by Viktor Orbán, János Lázár, and Zoltán Balog. Mazsihisz sent its president, András Heisler; Péter Tordai, the president of the Budapest Jewish Community (BZSH); and Péter Kardos, chief rabbi of Hungary and a Holocaust survivor.

The meeting was described as a long and “frank” discussion. We all know what “frank” means in this context: the discussion was less than pleasant and it led practically nowhere. As far as the monument is concerned, it is not negotiable because Viktor Orbán “has no room to maneuver.” He cannot give up the original concept. This is very strange reasoning. Who is forcing him to erect the monument? Surely, nobody. What he might have had in mind was that because of his stubbornness he maneuvered himself into a corner from which he cannot extricate himself without losing face.

Some people might argue that Orbán feels so strongly about the issue that scrapping the monument and the idea behind it would shake the very foundations of his worldview. I doubt it. He is anything but a man of firm beliefs. He belongs to the church of “what works now.” The only promise the leaders of the Mazsihisz delegation received was that in establishing the House of Fates “they together will make a last attempt to create a system of cooperation that will ensure the true depiction of history in accordance with Hungarian Jewish perspectives.”

In certain circles this agreement was hailed as a sign of Viktor Orbán’s willingness to compromise. I am not that optimistic. I fear that the gulf between the two views is so great that it cannot be bridged. I will be most surprised if talks between government representatives and supporters, such as Mária Schmidt and György Haraszti, and Mazsihisz, supported by most historians of the Holocaust, can possibly arrive at a common ground.

Szakály’s appointment, according to Mazsihisz’s brief description of the meeting, was not on the agenda. On the other hand, the Mazsihisz leaders offered some preliminary plans for a “House of Coexistence” which Mazsihisz suggested as an alternative to the House of Fates. Again, I have the feeling that this is a dead issue. As is clear from the agenda of the conversation, the creation of the House of Fates is going ahead. A House of Coexistence would be another establishment costing additional money. I doubt that Viktor Orbán is in the mood to give such a gift to Mazsihisz and the Jewish communities it represents. Especially not after Jewish communities supported the two-week-long demonstration against his “accurate and flawless” monument.

Viktor Orbán pontificates on 1944

As controversy continues to swirl around the government’s decision to erect a monument commemorating the March 19, 1944 “occupation” of Hungary by the Third Reich,Viktor Orbán decided to explain the symbolism of the monument. If Orbán thought that this lengthy explanation would help his cause, he was mistaken. In fact, he got himself into even deeper water than before.

Thanks to the diligence of the young pro-Fidesz crew of mandiner.hu, the letter is already available in English. By and large, I will use their translation except for a few times when I think the translator misinterpreted the meaning of the original or where there are grammatical errors.

The letter is addressed to “Frau Professor Katalin Dávid.” It seems that Katalin Dávid, a ninety-two-year-old highly respected art historian, wrote something about the controversial monument which she entitled “Memorandum.” Her piece is not available online, although it was either published somewhere or circulated among friends. It seems that she was not unfriendly to the idea of erecting such a monument because Orbán profusely thanks Dávid for her “kind gesture” and notes that her style is superior to the writing of those intellectuals who “use the public tone of general contempt.” Her “Memorandum,” he writes, “is the first to avoid the bar counter of cheap political pushing and shoving that is practically unavoidable these days.” In brief, all those who oppose the erection of the monument behave like crude, presumably soused guys who shout at or even shove each other in a bar.

After expressing his opinion of Hungarian intellectuals, he goes on to share his own ideas about the history of the period. Well, the “cheap” Hungarian intellectuals immediately shot back. József Debreczeni, who is intimately familiar with Viktor Orbán’s thinking, described this pompous letter as both unbecoming and dangerous for the prime minister of a country. Debreczeni, who has a soft spot for József Antall, whom he rarely criticizes, brought up a similar mistake Antall committed when he lectured about what he personally thought of the role of Miklós Horthy. At least Antall was a historian before he became a politician.

The very first problem is that, as usual, Viktor Orbán doesn’t tell the truth about the government’s original concept for the monument and what it was supposed to stand for. He now says that the idea was always to create “a memorial to hundreds of thousands of innocent victims.” Thus, we would have a truly odd situation here: those Jewish organizations who object to the erection of the monument don’t want to see a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Surely, that would be madness. Indeed, it would be if it were true.

But let’s go back to what the government initially wanted the monument to express. The name of the monument was simply: “German occupation of Hungary, March 19, 1944.” The description of the monument emphasized that “Archangel Gabriel [is] the man of God, symbol of Hungary.” There is not one word about victims. Moreover, the government required that “the monument must faithfully reflect the loss of Hungary’s dignity and independence and in its monumentality it must express the tragedy of the occupation that overtook the whole nation.”

But now, for Orbán, the Archangel Gabriel highlights something else as well: the anti-Christian nature of the German regime in 1944. “The invading German empire of the time swept away the two-thousand-year-old European Christian virtues and the Christian expectations and teachings with regard to politics and power, and so the victims, whether of Mosaic faith, Christian or without faith, became the victims of a dictatorship that embodied an anti-Christian school of thought. To successfully grasp this very complicated historical and spiritual structure within a sculptural composition commemorating the victims is a true creative feat.” Indeed, it would be a feat if it had any truth to it. Surely, Viktor Orbán must be confused if, while writing about the Shoa, he focuses on the anti-Christian nature of  “the German empire of the time.” As if the mass annihilation of Jewish people had much to do with the anti-Christian ideology of the Nazi regime. After all, the victims were not sent to the gas chambers because of their religion but because of their genes. (By the way, in the above sentence I changed “orthodox” to “Mosaic faith” because in this context “óhitű” refers to what Hungarians used to call “izraelita vallású.” I want to point out Orbán’s avoidance of the words “Jew/Jewish.”.)

Dialogue Viktor Orbán style Fruzsina Magyar, wife of Imre Mécs, is taken away from Szabadság tér today

Dialogue Viktor Orbán style /  Fruzsina Magyar, wife of Imre Mécs, is taken away from Szabadság tér 

From Archangel Gabriel we can now move on to the symbolism of the imperial eagle. Viktor Orbán also has a definite opinion on that subject. The question for him is whether the invaders were Nazis or Germans, and in his view the invaders were Germans. He bases this opinion “primarily … on constitutional law.” They were Germans “who at the time happened to be living their lives in a country organized according to the Nazi state structure. Differentiating between the two and assessing the implications is the business of the German people and less so that of Hungarian commentators who otherwise acknowledge German national virtues and are usually sympathetic towards the failings of others.” This is how Orbán explains why they don’t use the Nazi variation of the German imperial eagle. Thus, the message is that for the sins of Nazi Germany all living Germans are still responsible. They are the ones who must take care of that problem, says the prime minister of a country whose government and the majority of its population refuse to admit their own responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust. As for Orbán’s remarks about those wonderful Hungarians who “are usually sympathetic toward the failings of others,” it makes me sick.

His final words on the monument are that “from a moral perspective and with regard to the historical content of its system of allegories, this work is accurate and flawless.”

Now let’s turn to how Orbán views the role of the Hungarian government and the Hungarian people in the events of the Hungarian Holocaust. According to him, it is undisputed that “Germany bears responsibility for what happened in Hungary after 19 March 1944,” and this fact is determined by “our Fundamental Law.” That is, the new constitution which his government proposed and enacted and which claims that as of March 19, 1944 Hungary lost its sovereignty. This might be an undisputed fact for Orbán, but as we know from weeks of historical discussion on the subject it is an immensely complicated issue. Nevertheless, it is well documented that Hungarian authorities played a significant role in the events after March 19.

Hungarians who analyzed this particular part of the text found the following sentences problematic from a historical and lexical point of view. Although Orbán, after stating that Germany was responsible for the events post March 1944, also admits the responsibility of the Hungarian political leadership, he adds that in his view “the charge of collaboration and the related responsibility holds true in this case.” The word “collaboration” is odd here because the word in Hungarian means pretty much what the English meaning of the word is: “treasonable cooperation in one’s own country with an enemy occupation force.” The Hungarian definition adds that a collaborator is a traitor and that we use the term mostly for collaboration in World War II. Orbán, therefore, either doesn’t know the meaning of the word or is purposely using it to emphasize that Germany was an enemy of Hungary. Hungary’s leaders were, it seems, collaborators because they “did not initiate any form of resistance …; they did not launch a national defense or national rescue mission, they did not attempt to protect the freedom and assets of the country’s citizens, and they didn’t even have the strength to set up a government in exile.”

Note that, according to Orbán, Hungary’s leaders are guilty not because of what they did but because of what they didn’t do. It wasn’t that they actively collaborated; rather, they failed to defend the country against the German invaders. This interpretation, it seems to me, pretty well exonerates them from responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust.

Then comes what Orbán rather mysteriously calls “the issue of cohabitation.” It took me a little while to figure out that he was talking about Jewish/non-Jewish relations in Hungary since he assiduously avoids the mention of Jews in his letter. Orbán asks, in what he describes as the most important question, “What can we do, especially our own generation born after the events who are committed to Christian values, to national self-respect and to national pride based on correct self-knowledge?” In his view Hungarians did everything they could have done. They apologized, they made reparations, “but at the same time we cannot bear a responsibility that is not ours to bear.” Without the German occupation nothing would have happened to Hungary’s Jewish population. Therefore, “without the acceptance of these facts it is difficult to imagine a sincere cohabitation based on trust in the future.”

If I interpret this last sentence correctly, Viktor Orbán tells us that Hungarian Jews and non-Jews who don’t agree with his concept of history ought to leave because “sincere cohabitation” will be impossible. This strikes me as an only lightly veiled threat of the ugliest kind. For good measure here is the last sentence: “And our generation became followers of radical, anti-communist politics because we had had enough of an insincere life built on a lack of trust.” One could ask, what does anti-communism and the lack of trust in the Rákosi and Kádár periods have to do with the relationship between the government and those who oppose Viktor Orbán’s revisionist view of history? What is he talking about? Is he accusing his opponents of ties to the “horrid” communist past? It’s possible.

This whole letter is shameful and outrageous.