Tag Archives: László Eörsi

The dangers of being a historian in Orbán’s Hungary

Something extraordinary happened yesterday. László Tüske, director of Hungary’s National Library, launched disciplinary action against János M. Rainer, head of the Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution (’56 Institute), and three of his colleagues. Two were charged with making their views public on the factually inaccurate billboards used to advertise the sixtieth anniversary extravaganza staged by Viktor Orbán’s court historian, Mária Schmidt. This was the by now infamous case in which a fourteen-year-old boy who was one of the “pesti srácok” (urchins of Pest) was misidentified. A third was charged with complaining about photoshopped images used in the anniversary celebration. The fourth was charged with behaving improperly during Viktor Orbán’s speech on October 23.

Before I return to the story of this boy, let me say a few words about the ’56 Institute. It was officially established in June 1989 as a private foundation with very limited resources. In the mid-1990s the institute’s financial problems were seemingly solved when it became a publicly supported institution. Its financial security, however, was dependent on the whims of governments. As soon as Fidesz and the Smallholders won the election in 1998, the promised 60 million forints for the coming year was reduced to 6 million, largely because the right-wing government’s views on the events of 1956 differed radically from those of the majority of historians inside and outside the ’56 Institute. The Institute survived the four lean years and kept publishing literally hundreds of first-rate books on the revolution and related subjects. After the change of government in 2002 the Institute again received proper funding. But then Viktor Orbán returned, and this time he was ready to abolish the Institute altogether. At the last minute a compromise was reached, and the Institute was placed under the supervision of the National Library. Its historians became employees of the library.

Last November I wrote a post titled “An inveterate liar: Mária Schmidt’s celebrated freedom fighter.” You may recall that the Orbán government’s new “take” on the 1956 Revolution is that the only heroes of the revolution were those urchins and adults who actually fought against the Soviet troops on the streets. All others, including disillusioned party functionaries, journalists, intellectuals, and students, played a minimal role. Their presence didn’t make a substantial difference in the course of the events. So, for the sixtieth anniversary, new heroes had to be found from the groups of street urchins.

An actor with unlimited imagination came forth who created a hero of himself. He even found proof: a photo that appeared in Time Magazine at the time. Mária Schmidt, the organizer of the ’56 Memorial Year, was delighted. Giant billboards covered the country with this photo, and the boy depicted was identified as László Dózsa, an actor of modest talents. There was only one problem: the boy on the photo was not Dózsa but Pál Pruck, whose family came forth and proved, at least to my satisfaction, with family photos that it was indeed their father plastered and falsely identified all over the country. Both Dózsa and Mária Schmidt insisted that they were right and the Prucks were lying. Schmidt was especially adamant.

Since Schmidt didn’t let go, the “controversy” went on for weeks. During the debate contemporary pictures of both Pruck and Dózsa were displayed, and it was obvious that the boy in the Time Magazine photo was Pál Pruck. I suspect that Dózsa himself also knew that the boy in the photo was someone else. It is pretty difficult to mistake oneself for someone else regardless of the number of years that have gone by. For example, I found a picture of myself in the company of three of my classmates on Fortepan.hu, a fabulous collection of old photographs turned in by volunteers. I was unaware of the existence of this photograph, taken by someone without our knowledge. I had no difficulty identifying myself and my classmates. I was 16 at the time, Dózsa was 14 in 1956. Yet Schmidt in her usual shrill manner kept insisting and insisting, even when the facts were staring her in the face. As far as I’m concerned, she made a fool of herself. And now she’s making an even greater fool of herself by instructing the director of the Hungarian National Library to discipline the historians who “dared” question her judgment.

From left to right: László Eörsi, János M. Rainer, Réka Sárközy, and Krisztián Ungváry

While I could care less that Mária Schmidt is making a fool of herself, I do mind very much that Hungary has by now become a country where historians are “disciplined” for making their views public. This is another low in the history of Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal state.”

János M. Rainer’s sin was that he placed an interview on his Facebook page in which he explained that no one from Schmidt’s committee had asked the opinion of the historians of the Institute about the decorations Dózsa received in recognition of his role in the revolutionary events. Dózsa did receive all sorts of state decorations for his alleged heroism, but according to László Eörsi, the second disciplined historian, none of his stories could be verified. Eörsi was in fact quite diplomatic when he called Dózsa’s stories unverifiable. I, who went through the events, find them figments of his imagination. His stories are simply not believable. A third historian who was disciplined is Réka Sárközy, whose specialty is film history. She talked to 168.hu about her reservations over how the committee in charge of the memorial year was falsifying original photos. Obviously, expressing her opinions on “photoshopping” was also forbidden. Krisztián Ungváry’s specialty is not the revolutionary events of 1956, and his case is not connected to Dózsa. He was punished because on October 23, 2016 he whistled during Viktor Orbán’s speech. As he said, “I went there as a historian to demonstrate against the falsification of history.”

According to the Index article on this disgraceful case, the director of the National Library did what he did because he felt it was the only way to defend the historians against Schmidt’s wrath. Schmidt’s original idea was to put an end to the very existence of the Institute by subordinating it to one of the institutes Schmidt herself runs. It even occurred to her that the Institute should be merged in some form or other with the Veritas Historical Institute, where the “truth,” according to Orbán, is being sought by mostly right-wing historians.

György Gábor, a philosopher and a former classmate of László Tüske, finds the director’s decision to work hand in hand with the powers that be “disgusting and unacceptable.” It reminds him of the years of the one-party system. I would go even further. In the last ten years of the Kádár regime such blatant interference in matters of history was uncommon. This “disciplinary action” reminds me more of the Rákosi regime’s favorite way of handling such cases. In less serious matters, party functionaries from the top of the pyramid all the way down to the lowly Pioneer leader demanded a public “self-criticism” for one’s perceived misdeeds. I guess if these four historians had humbled themselves and apologized to Mária Schmidt perhaps they could have saved themselves from disciplinary action. Instead, I understand, Krisztián Ungváry has already turned in a formal complaint against the ruling.

March 24, 2017

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.