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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 20, 2017

Viktor Orbán and the Jewish war heroes of World War I

Yesterday Viktor Orbán delivered a speech in the Jewish cemetery on Kozma utca where there is a separate section for the graves of soldiers who served in World War I. This speech was hailed by the reporter for AFP as a breakthrough because it was Orbán’s “first acknowledgment of his country’s complicity in the Holocaust.” Alas, when I got to the original text it turned out that Orbán said nothing of the sort. He simply repeated the same old mantra: there were many Hungarians who “chose evil instead of virtue, the shameful instead of the honorable.” What this regime refuses to acknowledge is that it was the Hungarian government, not just individuals, that was complicit in the Hungarian Holocaust.

Otherwise, his speech was, as István Gusztos, a frequent contributor to liberal internet sites, labeled it, “hadova,” a word of Gypsy origin meaning “empty talk.” What Gusztos particularly objected to was Orbán’s glorification of war heroes as if the Austro-Hungarian participation in World War I had anything to do with the defense of the homeland. Orbán also made the unsubstantiated claim that without the Jewish soldiers the defense of the country couldn’t have been achieved. For starters, we have no statistics whatsoever on the percentage of Jewish-Hungarian soldiers in the army. We do know, however, that Archduke Joseph regarded the Jewish soldiers as “just as good patriots and soldiers as anyone else.” (János Gyurgyák, A zsidókérdés Magyarországon [p. 95]).

As for the glorification of heroes, Gusztos has a point. Orbán spent some time complaining about history books that “even after the change of regime talk about battles that had no heroes, only victims.” Instead, in his speech he concentrated on a series of battles that eventually managed to repel the Russian army at the Uzsok/Uzhok mountain pass in the last couple of months of 1914. Yes, the Russians were eventually pushed back, but at a large cost in lives on both sides. By concentrating on this particular episode Orbán advanced his thesis that World War I was a defensive war. In fact, he envisioned a scenario in which, if the Russians had not been stopped at Uzsok, they would have marched straight to Budapest. Given the slow pace of military movements in World War I, that outcome was unlikely, but it sounds good in a political speech.

Source: 444.hu

Source: 444.hu

How did Orbán manage to transition to the Jewish theme? After all, the occasion was the refurbishing of the military section of the Kozma utca cemetery. As usual, he handled the task well. The hero of the day was Baron Samu Hazai, the minister of defense at the time of the Russian-Hungarian encounter at Uzsok. Hazai was born Samuel Kohn, but after he decided on a military career he converted and changed his name. He was a great favorite of Prime Minister István Tisza, who often gathered influential men of Jewish extraction to advise him. He even offered positions in his cabinet to Jews. His first appointment was Samu Hazai. Two years later he picked János Teleszky as minister of finance. The third Jewish member of his cabinet was János Harkányi, minister of trade. They all served for the duration of Tisza’s seven years in office.

So, Hazai was the minister of defense, but what did he have to do with the battle at Uzhok? “Our outstanding minister of defense, Baron Samu Hazai, almost from nothing managed to put together a force of 70,000 men and in a moment of great inspiration decided to send Sándor Szurmay to head the new army group.”

Well, there is another version of the story. Sándor Szurmay held the rank of lieutenant-general and since 1907 had worked in the ministry of defense. When the war broke out he wanted to join the fighting forces, but Hazai found him indispensable and, instead of letting him go to the front, made him undersecretary of defense. The patriotic Szurmay was not happy with the arrangement and eventually asked the supreme command to put pressure on Hazai, who eventually relented. Orbán was mistaken:  Szurmay was not named to head a new force but arrived at Uzhok to take charge of the troops that were already fighting there. Szurmay quickly discovered that the military situation was desperate and that without extra men the Russians couldn’t be repulsed. At his request, Hazai and Tisza “moved heaven and earth” to send the extra 70,000 men to the battle site.

Orbán didn’t get the story quite straight, but at least Samu Hazai’s name resurfaced. After all, he was the first cabinet member of Jewish origin in Hungarian history. Moreover, during his tenure he put considerable effort into the modernization of the army and was responsible for legislation introducing a more enlightened military court system. In addition, he wrote several books on military topics and translated Carl von Clausewitz’s book On War. A fairly long English-language biography of Hazai is available online.

Two more thoughts on this speech. One sentence in particular caught my eye: “The road that led from the heroic Hungarian Jews’ comradeship to the concentration camps is incomprehensible.” I guess if it’s incomprehensible, the fate of Hungarian Jews from 1919 to 1944 doesn’t have to be, in fact can’t be explained. He said merely: “Walking around these graves it is incomprehensible that there was a political system in Hungary after World War II that wanted to eradicate even the memory of the soldiers buried here.” What a leap, and how telling.

The other interesting passage dealt with peace in our time. European countries worked hard to create peace after “the wars of nation states.” And “we must never forget that we must defend this peace every day so we wouldn’t become like the ‘sleepwalkers’ of Europe in 1914.” This passage can be interpreted in two different ways, I think. One interpretation is that Orbán here hails the European Union as the replacement for the warring nation states. This might be a friendly gesture toward Brussels. On the other hand, one might think of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, in which case Orbán is urging some kind of understanding with Russia at the expense of Ukraine. I don’t know which interpretation, if either, is applicable. Orbán’s double talk is difficult to decipher. 

Gusztáv Zoltai, former COO of Mazsihisz, is now János Lázár’s adviser on Jewish affairs

In the last couple of days the Hungarian Jewish community has been up in arms. Magyar Hírlap came out with the startling news that Gusztáv Zoltai, the former chief operating officer of Mazsihisz, had been named János Lázár’s adviser on Jewish matters. Members of the Jewish community were stunned.

(A few words of clarification in passing: when we refer to the Jewish community in Hungary we are talking about people living in Budapest because, as we often discussed, the Jewish population of the provinces almost completely perished in Auschwitz and other death camps. By and large we are not talking about a religious community but about people who are keenly aware of their Jewish heritage although some of them might be the offspring of mixed marriages. Mazsihisz officially represents practicing Jews but lately, especially under the leadership of the new president, András Heisler, more and more secular Jews stand behind the organization in its struggle with the Orbán government over issues connected to the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust.)

Gusztáv Zoltai’s name was practically synonymous with Mazsihisz in the last twenty years.  After all, he ran the show between 1992 and April 2014. His political past was not exactly exemplary. After 1956 he joined MSZMP and became a member of the Workers’ Guard (Munkásőrség), a group of hardcore supporters of the regime even during its most oppressive phase right after the revolution. Yet the new political leadership didn’t seem to be bothered by his past. In 1999 he received the freedom of District VII of Budapest, in 2005 a high decoration from the Medgyessy government, and in 2009 the freedom of Budapest. Perhaps the most interesting decoration he received came from the 1956 Alliance for his devoted cultivation of the spirit of the revolution. Zoltai has always landed on his feet.

As it turned out, under Zoltai’s watch Mazsihisz’s finances were in shambles. Worse, some transactions involving Mazsihisz might have been criminal in nature. I could write reams about the questionable deals linked to Zoltai. Anyone who would like to know more should read an article about the goings on in one of Budapest’s Jewish cemeteries in Szombat, a Jewish weekly. At that time the revelations were so serious that Zoltai could not prevent the new Mazsihisz leadership from hiring an outside firm to audit the past and present financial affairs of the organization. The result was Zoltai’s resignation as COO of Mazsihisz. Heti Válasz learned from a reliable source that the leadership of the organization placed two envelopes in front of him. One contained a letter indicating that Mazsihisz will press charges against him; the other, a letter of resignation. He could choose.

Gusztáv Zoltai, the boss of Mazsihisz

Gusztáv Zoltai as boss of Mazsihisz

I guess Zoltai’s new job really shouldn’t have come as a surprise, still everybody is stunned. Heisler was “in shock” and announced that, if this piece of news is correct, Gusztáv Zoltai “destroyed his life work that was not immaculate in the first place.” A few hours later Zoltai sat next to János Lázár at the Jewish Round Table. Lázár claimed that he was the one who approached Zoltai, whom he described as an independent man “who does not belong to our toadies (szekértolók).” I must say this is an odd way to describe one’s supporters and followers, and I wonder whether Lázár is actually familiar with the meaning of the word.

Lázár might think highly of his new “independent” adviser on Jewish affairs, but the people Heisler talked with had a strikingly different opinion of their earlier leader. “I received unbelievably sharp reactions from members of the Jewish community. In general people consider him a traitor,” said Heisler.  Péter Tordai, vice president of Mazsihisz, described Zoltai’s decision to work for the government as “selling not only himself but the whole Hungarian community to the government.”

Today György Vári of Népszabadság wrote a short opinion piece with the title: “Two men who found each other.” Vári briefly describes Zoltai’s past and notes that, despite many efforts to oust him in the last twenty years or so, it was an impossible task. He outfoxed everybody, including Heisler who while still vice president tried to send him into retirement. Vári points out the similarities between the practices of the Orbán government and those of Mazsihisz under the reign of Zoltai. People often say that Orbán and his minions have no compunctions. They know no limits. The same kind of attitude prevailed in Mazsihisz. Anyone who criticizes the Orbán government is called an anti-Hungarian who slanders the nation from abroad.  The situation was the same in Mazsihisz. If someone tried to criticize Zoltai, he/she was accused of anti-Semitism. “God created Lázár and Zoltai for each other. This marriage was made in heaven.”

All that happened only two days ago, but the Zoltai affair already seems to have created fissures in the Jewish community. Mazsihisz is not the only, although it is perhaps the most important, Jewish organization. Another one called Mazsök (Magyarországi Zsidó Örökség Közalapítvány) has taken the opposing view. It welcomed Zoltai’s becoming a government adviser. György Szabó, head of Mazsök’s board, hopes that with Zoltai’s help Mazsök will be able “to acquire more real estate.” Straightforward honest talk at least. According to Szabó, “Mazsök represents the interests of the whole Jewish community,” implying that Mazsihisz does not. Szabó also found it shameful “to call an eighty-year-old Holocaust surviving Hungarian Jew a traitor.”

And the controversy is spreading. On Facebook there is a group called “Tolerancia Csoport” in which Zoltai’s daughter Andrea is very active. She has also been a visible member of the small group of people who have been holding vigil at the monument that was erected in commemoration of the German occupation of Hungary in 1944. Here she wrote a long story about her father’s travails, which did not convince some members of the group. In response, the not so tolerant administrator of the page deleted the comments that criticized Zoltai’s behavior. Since then Kanadai Magyar Hírlap republished her story, where the comments to the piece are overwhelmingly negative.

The Mazsihisz leadership is acting as if this unexpected turn of events will have no bearing on the organization’s forthcoming negotiations with the government. From what I’ve learned so far about Zoltai, they may be surprised by this “marriage made in heaven.”

Sándor Szakály: Portrait of a historian

The “cursed” memorial to the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944 is still unfinished and the daily demonstration against its erection continues. Today the small group of demonstrators was joined by thousands of DK supporters who gathered to launch a campaign of “resistance” to the world of Viktor Orbán.

No one knows when Viktor Orbán will find the time opportune to go against the majority of Hungarians who consider the proposed monument a falsification of history, but while we are waiting for the final outcome historians are debating the crucial issue of the Hungarian state’s role in the death of about 400,000 Hungarians of Jewish origin.

The two main historians representing the position of the Hungarian government are Sándor Szakály, a military historian and director of the Veritas Historical Institute, and Mária Schmidt, an alleged expert on the Hungarian Holocaust and director of the infamous House of Terror. Of the two, it is most likely Schmidt who has been playing a key role in the formulation of the Orbán regime’s view of history. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we would eventually find out that she was the one who came up with the idea of the monument which, as it turned out, became a huge headache for Viktor Orbán. In comparison, Szakály is a small fry who, unlike Mária Schmidt, has no close connection to the prime minister himself. It is possible that it was Schmidt who suggested Szakály as a good choice for the directorship of Veritas.

In the last week or so both Schmidt and Szakály have been in the news. Szakály had an interview with a young journalist of an online newspaper called Versus (vs.hu) in which he again managed to say a few things that are considered to be inflammatory by some and outright wrong by others. The interview solicited a couple of written responses, and Szakály was invited by György Bolgár of KlubRádió for a chat on his program Megbeszéljük (Let’s talk it over). For those of you who know Hungarian, I highly recommend devoting about half an hour to that conversation, which begins at 22:13 and continues in the second half hour of the program.

Szakály began his career as a historian in 1982 when he published articles in periodicals dealing with military history. His first full-fledged book, on the military elite in the last years of the Horthy regime (A magyar katonai elit: 1938-1945, Budapest: Magvető), was published in 1987 . The book is full of statistics, including the percentages of various religious denominations of high-ranking officers. Or the breakdown by age of officers of the General Staff. It seems you can find every bit of minutiae about the Hungarian military elite you ever wanted (or didn’t want) to know. Even those that matter not. But the “spirit” of that military corps is missing entirely. We don’t learn anything about their ideology and their views of the world.

Szakaly

Szakály showed the same positivistic mindset when discussing the deportation of approximately 23,000 Jews in July 1941 who, according to the Hungarian authorities, could not produce proper identification to prove they were Hungarian citizens. This event took place shortly after the German attack on the Soviet Union. The Hungarian authorities sent these unfortunate people to territories already held by the Germans. Most of them were killed by the German occupying forces. According to Szakály, “some historians consider this event to be the first deportation of Jews from Hungary,” but in his opinion it can more properly be considered “a police action against aliens.” Jewish communities demanded Szakály’s resignation from his new post as director of Veritas.

Of course, Szakály did not resign. Moreover, as he said in this latest interview, he sees no reason to resign. He used “the correct technical term.” But then he continued: “I asked Ádám Gellért [a scholar who published an important study of the event] whether he looked at the text of the regulation. Did it say that Jews had to be expelled? Or did it say that they have to be expelled because they had no citizenship? It is another matter whether it was the appropriate time during the summer of 1941 to expel those without papers. I don’t contend that it couldn’t have happened that somebody out of spite expelled such a person who did have citizenship.”

Let’s analyze these few lines from a historian’s perspective. It is clear that Szakály lacks any and all ability to analyze a historical event in its complexity. If the ordinance does not specifically say something, the issue is closed. If the document did not say that Jews were to be expelled, then clearly the intent of the authorities was simply to deport stateless persons. The fact that all those who were deported were Jews doesn’t seem to make an impression on him and doesn’t prompt him to look beyond the words of the ordinance.

But that’s not all. Let’s move on to the timing. Szakály never asks himself why the Hungarian authorities picked that particular date and location for the deportations. He admits only that it was perhaps not the most “appropriate time.” Keep in mind that Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 and Hungary followed suit on the 27th. Szakály either feigns ignorance or he really is incapable of putting 2 and 2 together. The cabinet decided on the deportation of  “Galician Jews” on July 1, and on July 16 the first transports started their journey toward Soviet territories, by now occupied by German troops. In fact, the Hungarian authorities used the very first “opportunity” to get rid of some of the Jews who lived in the northeastern corner of the enlarged country. The date was calculated and planned.

And finally, the inclusion of Hungarian citizens in the transports is assumed by Szakály to be a rare occurrence committed by spiteful individuals. Naivete? Blindness? Ignorance? Or something else?

After listening to the interview with him on KlubRádió, I came to the conclusion that Szakály chose the wrong profession. He should have gone to military academy to become a fine military officer. He would know all the paragraphs of the military code by heart, and I’m sure that he would be a most obedient officer who would follow the rules and regulations to the letter. He would never question his superiors. I’m sure that he would have been a much better officer than he is a historian.

And one more thing that upset many people, for example Péter György, an esthete at ELTE, and György C. Kálmán, a literary historian at the same university. It was this sentence: “In my opinion, prior to the occupation of our country by the Germans the security of life and property of Hungarian Jewry, independently of the discriminative laws, was essentially ensured.” György interprets the above sentence to mean that, according to Szakály, “the age of anti-Jewish laws can be considered a normal state of affairs, which is the gravest falsification of 20th-century Hungarian history.” He added that since Szakály is the head of an official government institute, one could even question the present government’s responsibility.

Kálmán’s is a satirical piece that appeared in Magyar Narancs. He lists 16 paragraphs out of the many anti-Jewish laws enacted in interwar Hungary and asks Szakály whether he would feel secure in his person and his property if these laws applied to him. Here one can read all the important pieces of legislation that deprived Jews of all sorts of personal and property rights.

When confronted with György’s criticism, Szakály thought that his sentence covered the truth because he added the word “essentially” (alapvetően). It is obvious that two entirely different types of scholars stand in juxtaposition here. Szakály, who relies on a strict interpretation of texts, and György, who sees the problem in its full complexity. I have the suspicion that Szakály doesn’t really understand what György is talking about.

Meanwhile Mária Schmidt is fighting against all the historians who don’t agree with her. Just lately she gave several interviews on ATV and Klubrádió, and in today’s Népszabadság she has a long interview with Ildikó Csuhaj. Feeling under attack, she has been lashing out against all her colleagues. An interesting psychological study which I will leave for tomorrow.

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

In order to demonstrate Mária Schmidt’s revisionism when it comes to Hungary’s role in the war, the re-evaluation of the Horthy regime, and the twentieth-century history of the Hungarian Jewish community, I have chosen two articles, both from a collection of essays entitled Diktatúrák ördögszekerén. The first, covered yesterday, dealt with World War II and, to Schmidt’s mind, the inappropriate punishment of Germany and the Axis Powers. The second article, “Place of the Holocaust in the Modern History of the Hungarian Jewry (1945-1956)” is the subject of today’s post. In it Schmidt is allegedly seeking an answer to the question of whether the Holocaust altered and, if yes, to what extent, the relations between Jews and non-Jews. The answer? Well, that is not clear from the twenty-three pages that follow. There are places where she categorically states that the peaceful coexistence between Jews and non-Jews came to an abrupt end. Although in the 1920s there were signs  of reconciliation, the good old days could never be restored. On the other hand, she sometimes indicates that the ties between the two groups were always strong, even after 1928, especially in comparison to the situation in the neighboring countries.

The article on the Holocaust and its effect on Hungarian-Jewish relations actually covers a great deal more than the title would indicate. Almost half of the article covers the 1919-1944 period. Her thesis is that “the Hungarian liberal nobility and the leaders of Hungarian Jewry signed a pact in the middle of the nineteenth century.” What did this so-called “pact” entail? An understanding that the Hungarian nobility would provide Hungary’s political leadership and that the Jewish leaders would stay away from politics and busy themselves in the economic sphere and the professions. Continuing this line of reasoning, she argues that because Hungarian Jews became leaders of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, after 1919 the Hungarian political elite, the liberal nobility in Schmidt’s words, “considered the agreement null and void.”

I guess I don’t have to dwell much on the improbability of such an arrangement, formal or informal. Schmidt, however, takes this “unwritten rule” for granted and therefore maintains that the non-Jewish political elite after World War I was fully justified in changing their attitude toward the country’s Jewish citizens. The members of the political elite “believed that the representatives of Hungarian Jewry in 1918 and 1919 not only demanded a share of political power but made an attempt at their total annihilation.” Schmidt provides no supporting evidence for this stark claim.

From the above one would think that Jewish/non-Jewish relations had suffered such a blow that reconciliation between the groups was out of the question. A few lines later, however, we read about “the second flowering  of Hungarian Jewry” between 1928 and 1938. On the one hand, she talks about the partnership between the political elite and the Jewish community while, on the other, she mentions “the subordinate position of the Jews.” As if she couldn’t decide, or did not want to decide about the precise nature of that relationship. The Horthy regime “was not friendly to the Jews but until 1938 its representatives were not antagonistic either.” This is how Schmidt skirts the issue throughout the article. As an apologist for the Horthy regime she has every reason not to be forthright. The fact is that both the political leaders and a large segment of Hungarian society were imbued with anti-Semitism during the period under investigation.

After this unsatisfactory “analysis” of the interwar years we get to a very important date: “On March 19, 1944 Hungary’s sovereignty ceased to exist.” Schmidt wrote this article in 1998, but in 2011 it found its way into the preamble of the new constitution. In her description of this period almost every sentence sounds familiar: “The country that was directed by Nazi puppets no longer defended its Jewish citizens.” The Nazi puppets in Viktor Orbán’s latest formulation are “Nazi collaborators.” The portion of the sentence that talks about the country’s inability to defend its Jewish citizens is echoed in one of János Áder’s recent speeches on the Holocaust. Not a word about the personnel of the governments formed after March that was practically identical to the composition of earlier cabinets. On the contrary, she gives the impression that the political elite of the interwar period actively tried to save Hungary’s Jewish citizens. She claims that “in the last minute some members of the traditional elite managed to call up 40,000 Jewish men for labor service and thus saved them from deportation.”

Finally, we arrive at the 1945-1956 period which is in many ways the most fascinating part of this essay. I should mention that Mária Schmidt is also the foremost ideologue of the fierce anti-communism of the Orbán regime. This anti-communism is of relatively new vintage and has managed to give a less than accurate picture of the 1945-1989 period. I also assume that Schmidt’s influence on Viktor Orbán and his colleagues is considerable when it comes to the undifferentiated treatment of the period because she does the same in her own writings.

The article under consideration is especially interesting because in it Schmidt’s two interests intersect: the history of Hungarian Jewry and communist crimes. Early in the article she spends some time on the Hungarian Jews’ heavy involvement with the workers’ movement and with liberal politics. Their interest in left-wing politics only strengthened after the war until practically all the political leaders, legal or illegal, of leftist parties were Jewish. She quotes Robert Michels (1959) as the foremost authority on the history of the European working class movement, who claims that “in Hungary the parties of the working class were entirely in Jewish hands.” At this point Schmidt parenthetically notes: “Let us add to this that in Hungary’s case this statement with more or less modifications was true until 1956.” This sentence encapsulates her assessment of the Jewish presence in politics between 1945 and 1956. They were the ones who were mostly responsible for the Stalinist dictatorship of the Rákosi period.

The judges and the prosecutors of the people’s courts that passed some 400 death sentences were almost exclusively Jewish. The leadership of the Hungarian Communist Party was heavily Jewish (Mátyás Rákosi, Mihály Farkas, Ernő Gerő, and József Révai), and Schmidt is not moved by the argument that they were first and foremost committed to communism and did not consider themselves Jewish. Anti-Semitism arose because the people who were in positions of political power all came from what she calls and puts into quotation marks “the persecuted.” And she continues thus: “After twenty-five years of frightening  of the right-wing press, a Jewish-communist world conspiracy seemed to materialize.”

After the old non-communist elite was removed and accused of war crimes, “the comrades of Jewish origin managed to get themselves into important positions in the new democracy.” Prior to 1945 Hungarian Jews had a double identity: they were Hungarians and they were Jews. But socialism offered something that replaced both. “Instead of Hungarian, internationalism and instead of Jewish, comrade.” Or a little later: “When the old political elite lost its positions in many cases their places were taken by Jewish comrades.” They received important, well paid jobs, uniforms, ranks, fabulous careers.” I don’t know what you call this, but I call it anti-Semitic discourse.

Victims of Communism Memorial, Washington, DC / commons.wikimedia.org

Victims of Communism Memorial, Washington, D.C. commons.wikimedia.org

And let me add a footnote to all this. A few weeks ago Viktor Orbán announced that Hungary is ready to contribute one million dollars for the establishment of a museum in Washington, D.C. dedicated to the victims of communism. In 1994 the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation was established. Originally, the founders planned to raise $100 million for a museum and memorial, but by 1999 only $500,000 had been raised. Viktor Orbán is trying to resuscitate this abortive plan. But $1 million is peanuts for such an undertaking, and therefore he is trying to convince other countries in Eastern Europe to contribute to the fund. In Schmidt’s and Orbán’s worldview, if there is a museum for the victims of Nazi Germany it is only appropriate to have one for the victims of communism.

I don’t know whether the supporters of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation know much about Viktor Orbán’s cozy relationship with former KGB agent Vladimir Putin and his recent friendship with the president of Kazakhstan, who is a leftover from communist times and who today is a bloody dictator. I also wonder how much these people know about the background of a fair number of Fidesz politicians who are such rabid anti-communists today but who in the past were high-ranking party members. Some of them were even agents spying on their fellow citizens during the Kádár regime. Do they know that Viktor Orbán’s father was party secretary of the company he owns today? Or that Orbán himself was secretary of KISZ, the youth organization of the Hungarian communist party? And that László Kövér worked for a while after graduation at the institute attached to the party’s central committee?

Well, in any case, the Hungarian Embassy in Washington and the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation jointly organized an event scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. It will be a panel discussion on the “History and Legacy of Communism in Europe.” Mária Schmidt will be one of the participants. Let’s hope that the audience will appreciate her vast knowledge of the subject.

Hungarian history textbooks under scrutiny

Recently the Hungarian government purchased/nationalized two of the larger textbook publishers: Apáczai Kiadó and Nemzedékek Tudása Tankönyvkiadó. Perhaps it should be mentioned for the sake of Hungarian cultural history that János Apáczai Csere (1625-1659), polyglot author of the first textbook written in Hungarian, was one of the many Transylvanian scholars who studied at Dutch universities (Leiden and Utrecht). What linked the Principality of Transylvania and The Netherlands was their common Calvinist heritage.

Because of the Hungarian state’s direct interest in textbook publishing, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the new list of “recommended” textbooks heavily favors these two publishers although, if the quality of textbooks is any indication, these publishing houses are not the best. Of the 3,223 textbook titles currently available, the ministry approved only 922 (29%). Private publishers tend to fall into the “unapproved” category. For instance, one private publisher, Mozaik, has 17 titles and, according to the CEO of the company, 260,000 books currently in use in Hungarian classrooms. But there is not a single Mozaik title on the recommended list.

A few years back I became very interested in what Hungarian high school students learn about modern Hungarian and world history in grade 12. At that time the most popular history textbook in this category was Konrád Salamon’s. I ordered a copy of it as well as another textbook that was the work of a team of historians whom Viktor Orbán would surely find unacceptable. Names like János Kende, Tamás Krausz, Zoltán Ripp, Péter Sipos, and Éva Standeiszky. I found the joint effort of these historians far better than Salamon’s textbook, which included many questionable notions about such fundamental values as democracy. The historian László Karsai wrote a detailed critique of the Salamon book, which was pretty devastating. Yet it was at one point the most popular book, not because teachers liked it so much but because the matriculation questions on history were based on this particular textbook. (Personally, I think it’s high time to get rid of matriculation exams altogether, but that’s a topic for another day.)

tortenelem konyvek

Recently, as part of a foundation study, László Miklósi analyzed five grade 8 and three grade 12 modern history textbooks, with special focus on their treatment of the fate of Hungarian Jews. The one he liked best was published by Műszaki Kiadó–Csaba Dubcsik and Ildikó Repászky’s Történelem IV. It is especially strong in providing important source material and asking thought-provoking questions based on the material. Instead of taking it for granted that students understand the meaning of certain concepts (racism, political anti-Semitism, differences between fascism and Nazism), the authors explain their meanings. In general, the book devotes more time than the others do to ideologies. Its authors spend considerable time defining concepts like conservatism, liberalism, “Christian-national,” and the different meanings of “Christian” in the Hungarian setting. While among the books discussed there is at least one that claims that Horthy was not anti-Semitic, this textbook actually publishes Miklós Horthy’s infamous letter to Pál Teleki in which he tells the prime minister that he always was an anti-Semite.

The book also includes a speech from Hitler from which it becomes clear that the Führer’s final goal was the physical elimination of all Jews. And students should learn something about the dangers of fanaticism when reading a Himmler quotation in which he admits that he would be willing to kill his own mother if Hitler so ordered. This seems to be the only book that quotes from people who survived Auschwitz. The description of the situation after March 19, 1944 seems to be detailed and accurate, including Horthy’s role. There is mention of the fact that, although Horthy in his memoirs claimed that he knew nothing about the fate of the Jews, “there are several sources that prove his knowledge of the truth about the deportations.” All in all, this seems to be the best modern history textbook on the market at the moment. At least as far as the question of the Hungarian Jewry’s fate between the two world wars is concerned.

I can’t imagine that this book will be available in state high schools. It is a shame, but Viktor Orbán’s worldview is so radically different from what Dupcsik and Répászky summarize in this textbook that he couldn’t possibly tolerate exposing Hungarian students to such intellectual “poison.” After all, we hear often enough how unique and magnificent the Hungarian nation is. This regime puts so much emphasis on “Christian-national” values that the less than glowing description the authors offer of this term would be unacceptable. This and similar textbooks couldn’t possibly be tolerated by an authoritarian regime that wants to be in charge of what people think.

What else can one expect from a regime that has the temerity to set up a state research institute under political supervision (just like in the one-party system of Rákosi and Kádár) and call it, of all things, Veritas?

 

The Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center publishes its “professional communiqué”

I think that this latest tug of war between Hungarian Jewish organizations and the Orbán government should not be viewed solely in the context of the treatment and fate of Jews in Hungary. Yes, the debate broke out as a direct result of the government’s plans for the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. But we are dealing here with a larger project: the government’s concerted effort to rehabilitate the entire Horthy era (1920-1944). Downplaying the country’s responsibility for the deportation of Hungarian Jews is part and parcel of this effort.

There has been a debate in the last couple of years among political commentators about the nature of the Orbán government’s policies. Are they the result of a grand design or are they a haphazard collection of on the spot decisions dictated by circumstances? I am inclined to think that the first hypothesis is closer to the truth, especially when it comes to Fidesz politicians’ views of the history of the Horthy period.

One of the first steps taken by the Orbán government was the removal of the director of the Holocaust Memorial Center. A few months after the formation of the government András Levente Gál, one of the undersecretaries in the Ministry of Administration and Justice, paid a visit to the Center and expressed his displeasure at what he saw there. He especially objected to the exhibit’s linkage of the Hungarian occupation of the regained territories with the deportation of Jewish Hungarians from those territories. And he was not the only one to complain. Cardinal Péter Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom, objected to the placement of the anti-Semitic Ottokár Prohászka, bishop of Székesfehérvár (1858-1927), right next to Hitler. A Christian Democratic politician announced that he will not visit the Holocaust Memorial Center as long as Prohászka’s picture is there. It was clear that the Orbán government’s view was that, since it is the Hungarian government that finances the Center, it can dictate what goes on there. As the Hungarian saying goes: “Who pays the Gypsy can order the music.”

Szabolcs Szita

Szabolcs Szita

Soon enough the government fired the director and appointed its own man, a non-Jew, Szabolcs Szita, in his place. He is the man to whom Professor Randolph L. Braham addressed his letter stating that in protest he will no longer allow his name to be associated with the Center’s library. I don’t know much about Szabolcs Szita’s work. I do have one of his books, but I must admit that I didn’t read it very carefully. In light of all these developments, it’s time for a much closer reading. The book, Együttélés–üldöztetés– holokauszt (Coexistence–Persecution–Holocaust), was published in 2001. According to an English-language postscript, it “won the first prize in the competition announced by the Ministry of Education” of the first Orbán government. The first half of the unfootnoted book deals with the history of European Jews with special emphasis on Germany while the other half, about 150 pages, looks at the history of Hungarian Jewry from their settlement to the Holocaust. There is a lot of emphasis on Hungarian civilians’ efforts to save their Jewish friends and neighbors. Szita’s views seem to be more in sync with those of the government than were his predecessor’s.

Shortly after his appointment Szabolcs Szita gave an interview to Origowhich was severely criticized by fellow historians and Jewish leaders. Let me quote some of Szita’s contentions: “If there had been no aggressive German interference Hungary probably would have been the example in the eyes of Europe and the world. Until 1944 we were an island of peace. There were anti-Jewish laws but Jews were not facing the peril of death en masse as in other countries.” In this interview he put the blame more on individuals “who must be named and condemned, Baky, Endre and Jaross,” men in charge of the deportations in the Ministry of Interior of the Sztójay government. He also overemphasized the number of high officials who resigned rather than take part in the deportation of their compatriots. As we know, there were mighty few of those. A notable exception, by the way, was Károly Szendy, mayor of Budapest between 1934 and 1944. As far as I know, the “grateful nation” didn’t even bother to name a street after this decent man.

In 2011 Szita came up with some startling suggestions. For example, he thought that it might be a good idea to organize a professional debate on whether “there was national resistance” to German occupation. That question doesn’t need a lot of research. There is ample evidence already showing that there wasn’t. He also thought that it would be a good idea to set up an institute to investigate the activities of the People’s Courts. These were the courts that dealt with the fate of war criminals. How would that help our understanding of the Holocaust?

From this interview we learn about the genesis of the House of Fates. Szita came up with the idea that the abandoned building of the Józsefváros Railway Station should be acquired by the Holocaust Memorial Center. School children could visit there to learn something about the Holocaust. He would have placed a Wallenberg Memorial at the site because Raoul Wallenberg managed to save a few people at that station.

The Holocaust Memorial Center has been suspiciously quiet in the last few weeks, but I guess after Mazsihisz’s announcement of a boycott yesterday Szabolcs Szita could no longer remain silent. He and his staff came out with a “professional communiqué.” That sounds to me like: “here is the final truth on the matter.” It is a strange document. The first paragraph talks about March 19, 1944 as a dividing line (actually sorsforditó, which means an event that changes everything) when “the trampled down country without any resistance became free prey.” Further, the official statement claims that “it is probable that without the unexpected German occupation Hungarian Jewry would have survived the war.”

It is at this point that Szabolcs Szita goes further in his condemnation of Miklós Horthy and the Sztójay government than in his 2011 interview with Origo. Then he blamed only individuals lower down on the totem pole, László Baky, László Endre, and Andor Jaross, who were guilty because they organized the deportations. Now he seems to have moved from this position and also blames “Governor Horthy, the Sztójay government, and the servile attitude of the civil service.” He also makes reference to the “civil servants who were brought up in the spirit of anti-Jewish laws” and thus became violently anti-Semitic. Again, Szita refuses to admit that it was not just the members of the civil service who were infected by the all-pervasive anti-Semitism but the whole population. There were few people who raised their voices or moved a finger in defense of their Jewish compatriots.

Some people called the document “cowardly.” Well, it is certainly not a brave document, but what can one expect from an institute that is basically an arm of the Hungarian government? It tries to satisfy both sides and therefore its message is confused and contradictory. But at least the document names Miklós Horthy and the government he appointed as guilty of the crime, which is more than one might have expected from the new management of the Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center.