Tag Archives: Yad Vashem

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.

Mária Schmidt: Another person who chose the wrong profession

Ever since June 26, when Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror and a close associate of Viktor Orbán, wrote an article that one of her critics called “fulminating,” a tsunami of articles, blog notes and comments has appeared in the Hungarian media. I wrote about the article in detail on June 29, and many other pieces followed in Hungary. I am happy to announce that the English translation of this controversial article is now available.

Let me sample a few of the reactions by bloggers: “We have always suspected that she is vicious and stupid, but now for some strange reason she decided to let the whole world know it.” Or, “On five long pages she is raving, sometimes with unbridled fury and hatred” which can be described in one simple obscene sentence in a comment on the Internet. Or, I saw a note by Balázs Láng, an actor, on Facebook. In it, he compares Mária Schmidt to Clara Zachanassaian in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit (Der Besuch der alten Dame). Mária Schmidt, whose businessman husband died young, is a very wealthy woman. Láng continues: “Reading Schmidt’s lines, the heroine of Dürrenmatt is mercy, love, and humanity itself in comparison. The article of the Hungarian heiress is ‘In the captivity of the past’ and she leaves no doubt that in that jail she is the screw.”

Then there are others that must hurt more because they come from fellow academics. The first serious criticism came from György C. Kálmán, a literary historian, who wrote an article not really about the infamous piece by Schmidt but about a television interview that followed its appearance. As you will see, Schmidt has been very busy in the last couple of weeks trying to defend the views she expressed in her article. She has been singularly unsuccessful. Kálmán in this article can hardly find words to describe his reactions to this interview because “everything that leaves that lady’s mouth is illogical, confusing, primitive, discontinuous, and obscure even within her own parameters.” The delivery is “emotional, overstrung, full of indignation, resentment, and saccharine.” And finally, the greatest blow that anyone can deliver, Kálmán gingerly suggests that Mária Schmidt’s “intellectual powers” are wanting. That perhaps she does not understand, or at least doesn’t understand fully, what she is talking about.

Even more upsetting for Mária Schmidt must have been an article by Mária M. Kovács, a fellow historian who is currently professor and director of the Nationalism Studies Program at the Central European University in Budapest. Readers of Hungarian Spectrum should be familiar with her name because we talked about a recent book of hers on the infamous numerus clausus of 1920 that restricted the enrollment of Jewish students at institutions of higher education. Her article in Népszabadság is entitled simply “Schmidt.” It is a very hard-hitting piece of writing; I strongly suggest that anyone with some knowledge of Hungarian read it in the original. Here I can only summarize her most important points.

Mária M. Kovács calls Schmidt’s writing in Válasz a provocation and a declaration  of war. In her opinion, the author of that article crossed a line. One area in which she overstepped the limit of acceptable discourse  is her handling of the Holocaust. In her article Schmidt talks about the Holocaust as “one of the preferred topics of the empire,” meaning the United States, the European Union and Germany, and says that the empire “demands a minimum” that “must be fulfilled.” The Hungarian left-liberals wholeheartedly serve the interests of this empire to the exclusion of the interests of their own country. In fact, they not only fulfill the West’s demands, they overachieve in their servility. And since the Holocaust is one of the favored topics, the attitude of the Hungarian liberals and socialists toward the Holocaust is also overdrawn. The other area where Schmidt crossed the line is her calling anyone who is against the erection of the memorial to the German occupation of Hungary in 1944 a traitor who acts against the nation’s interests.

Mária Schmidt and Mária M. Kovács were both guests on György Bolgár’s program on KlubRádió. Kovács’s conversation with Bolgár took place on July 9 from 25:36 in the first part of the program. On the following day, one can hear Schmidt’s less than cogent discussion from 23:23, again in the first part of the program.

Since then Mária Schmidt had an interview with Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság with the telling title: “And my sensitivity doesn’t matter?” It is clear from the interview that she feels threatened by other historians’ criticism of her position on Hungary’s role in the Hungarian Holocaust. Instead of trying to come up with facts that would bolster her views, she lashes out against such highly respected historians as László Karsai and Krisztián Ungváry. When the journalist pointed out that these two historians did not say, as Schmidt claims, that the Hungarians were more guilty than the Germans, this was her answer: “Questioning the loss of sovereignty covers politically motivated malice, or at least ignorance, low professional standards.” She is the good historian while the others are inferior, ignorant, and full of malice.

During the interview, the journalist concentrated mostly on questions concerning Hungarian-German relations during 1944 and before. When she mentioned Randolph Braham’s name in connection with Hungary’s status as an ally of Germany, Schmidt lost her temper: “Let’s leave all that talk about ‘allies.’ In the case of Sándor Szakály the problem was that he used the contemporary designation … What kind of thinking is exhibited when someone talks about a real alliance when the elephant allies himself with the mouse?” When the journalist retorted by saying that “formally” Germany and Hungary were allies, the answer was: “Please, formally we can also speak of a police action against aliens.” Dangerous to use contemporary designations in one case but not the other. I guess that means that Germany and Hungary were not really allies.

Mária Schmidt being interviewed by Ildikó Csuhaj Source: Népszabadság

Mária Schmidt being interviewed by Ildikó Csuhaj
Source: Népszabadság

During the conversation the topic of nation and its detractors came up and the journalist remarked that calling people enemies of their own nation is a very serious accusation. Well, it seems that even Schmidt realized that she went too far here and claimed in this interview that what she actually wanted to say was that these people were “enemies of the nation-state.” However, the reporter kept talking about Schmidt’s original wording: “people who are enemies their own nation.” At this point Schmidt became annoyed: “Why are you talking about anti-nation sentiments? I was talking about antagonism toward the idea of the nation-state. Let’s fix this before anyone puts words in my mouth.” Unfortunately for Schmidt, nobody put these words in her mouth; she uttered them herself.

At the end the reporter brought up the fact that the Yad Vashem Institute no longer supports Mária Schmidt’s project, the House of Fates. Moreover, one of the associates of the Institute apparently said at one point that “it is time to get rid of this institute and this woman.” Schmidt assured her interlocutor that this woman no longer works at Yad Vashem. As if her alleged departure had anything to do with her less than polite words about Mária Schmidt. As for her next project, the House of Fates, she is still trying to convince people to work with her. A few more interviews like the ones she has been giving and I can assure her that no one will be willing to do anything with her that is connected to the Hungarian Holocaust.

Still about March 19, 1944: A call against the falsification of Hungarian history

The following letter was sent to the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, the Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas in Berlin, and the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The signatories, as you can see, are from all over the world.

Holocaust Memorial Center, Budapest

Holocaust Memorial Center, Budapest

The memorial the current Hungarian government, despite months of protests, intends to erect is an important issue because it symbolizes a revisionist interpretation of the Hungarian Holocaust that is inadmissible. Let me express my hope that international public opinion will be able to prevent the erection of a monument that not only the Hungarian Jewish community but approximately half of the country’s population disapproves of.

* * *

We, the undersigned, ask the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, the Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas in Berlin and the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem to help safeguard the historical memory of the destruction of the Hungarian Jews.

The Hungarian government, with deep contempt for historical truth, persists in creating an alternative vision, which denies the responsibility of the Hungarian government and of those Hungarians who had facilitated, or participated in the murders during the Second World War.

We are deeply concerned about the attempt by the government’s Veritas institute (charged with rewriting the past from a nationalist perspective), to sign an agreement with the Holocaust Memorial Center at Páva Street, Budapest, and about the current insecure situation in which the Holocaust Memorial Center finds itself, without director. The director of Veritas consistently uses terminology once employed by the regime of Regent Miklós Horthy which had engineered the murder of the Hungarian victims of the Holocaust. This rhetoric, in line with government ideology, exculpates the Hungarian government of the period.

We are deeply concerned about the falsification of the past, and fear that there will no longer be a public institution in Hungary that will be able to work unhindered on the history of the Holocaust. There are now several operational or planned museums in Budapest that provide a historically inaccurate, distorted version of the past (The House of Terror Museum, the planned House of Fates, and the possible new conception for the Holocaust Memorial Center). The trend is towards minimizing the Holocaust and shifting the blame onto both Nazis and communists who are widely equated with Jews. We would like to ensure that the truth is available to the public in an independent museum or virtual museum.

We also ask that you support those in Hungary who oppose the government memorial that is being erected in Budapest to commemorate Hungary’s “German occupation” on 19 March 1944. The monument blurs the lines between victims and culprits by representing Hungary, or in recent governmental reinterpretation, “all the victims” of the occupation, in the figure of the Archangel Gabriel, while shifting all the responsibility onto German Nazis represented by an eagle.

 * * *

Nous, soussignés, sollicitons le United States Holocaust Memorial Museum à Washington, le Mémorial de la Shoah à Paris, la Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas à Berlin et la Yad Vashem à Jérusalem de nous aider à conserver la mémoire historique de l’anéantissement des Juifs Hongrois.

Le gouvernement hongrois, avec un mépris profond pour la vérité historique, s’obstine à créer une vision alternative, qui nie la responsabilité du gouvernement hongrois et de ceux parmi la population hongroise qui ont facilité ou ont participé aux meurtres pendant la deuxième guerre mondiale.

Nous sommes profondément concernés par la tentative de nouer unaccord entre l’institut Veritas fondé par le gouvernement (dont la tâche est la réécriture du passé dans une perspective nationaliste) avec le Centre de la Commémoration de la Shoah de la rue Páva, à Budapest; nous sommes également choqués par la situation d’insécurité dans laquelle le Centre se trouve, sans directeur. Le directeur de Veritas utilise systématiquement la même terminologie que celle employée par le régime du Régent Miklós Horthy, qui avait orchestré le meurtre des victimes hongrois de la Shoah. Cette rhétorique, correspondant à l’idéologie gouvernementale, innocente le gouvernement hongrois de l’époque.

Nous sommes profondément concernés par le démenti du passé et nous craignons qu’il n’y aura plus d’institution publique en Hongrie qui pourra mener sans entrave un travail sur l’histoire de la Shoah. Il y a maintenant plusieurs musées opérationnels ou projetés à Budapest qui donnent une version historiquement erronée et déformée du passé (le Musée de la Maison de la Terreur, le Musée en projet de la Maison des Destins, et le possible nouveau concept pour le Centre de la Commémoration de la Shoah). La tendance actuelle vise à minimiser la Shoah et à déplacer le blâme sur les nazis et les communistes qui sont largement assimilés auf Juifs.  Nous voudrions nous assurer que la vérité reste accessible au public à travers un musée indépendant ou un musée virtuel.

Nous sollicitons aussi votre soutien pour ceux en Hongrie qui s’opposent au mémorial en train d’être érigé par le gouvernement à Budapest, commémorant «l’occupation allemande» de la Hongrie, le 19 Mars 1944. Ce monument efface la différence entre victimes et coupables dans la figure de l’Archange Gabriel qui représente la Hongrie, ou, selon une réinterprétation gouvernementale récente, «toutes les victimes» de l’occupation, tandis que la responsabilité est déplacée sur les nazis allemands, représentés par un aigle.

 * * *

Wir, die Unterzeichneten, bitten das United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, das Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, die Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas in Berlin, und die Yad Vashem in Jerusalemdabei zu helfen, die historische Erinnerung an die Vernichtung der ungarischen Juden zu bewahren.

Die Ungarische Regierung, in tiefer Verachtung für historische Wahrheit, insistiert auf einer neuen Version der Geschichte, die die Verantwortung der Ungarischen Regierung und jener Ungarn, die an den Morden während des Zweiten Weltkriegs beteiligt waren, leugnet.

Wir sind tief besorgt über den Versuch der Übereinkunft zwischen dem Regierungsinstitut „Veritas“ (das die Aufgabe hat, die Vergangenheit aus nationalistischer Perspektive neu zu schreiben) und dem Holocaust Memorial Center in der Pávastraße in Budapest, und die aktuelle unsichere Situation, in der das Center keinen Direktor hat. Der Direktor von „Veritas“ benutzt konsequent die Terminologie, die einst vom Regime Miklós Horthys verwendet wurde, das die Ermordung der ungarischen Holocaust-Opfer ins Werk gesetzt hat. Diese Rhetorik entschuldigt, ganz auf der Linie der Politik der heutigen Regierung, die damalige.

Wir sind tief besorgt über die Verfälschung der Vergangenheit, und wir fürchten, daß es nicht länger eine öffentliche Institution in Ungarn geben wird, die die Geschichte des Holocaust ungehindert erforschen kann. Es gibt derzeit mehrere existierende oder geplante Museen in Budapest, die eine historisch unrichtige, verdrehte Version der Vergangenheit präsentieren (das „Haus des Terrors“, das geplante „Haus der Schicksale“, und die mögliche neue Konzeption des  Holocaust Memorial Center). Der Trend geht dahin, den Holocaust zu minimalisieren und die Schuld den Nazis und den Kommunisten – die weitgehend mit den Juden identifiziert werden – zuzuschieben. Wir möchten sicherstellen, daß die Wahrheit der Öffentlichkeit in einem unabhängigen oder auch in einem virtuellen Museum zugänglich bleibt.

Wir bitten Sie auch diejenigen in Ungarn zu unterstützen, die sich dem Regierungsprojekt eines Denkmals widersetzen, das in Budapest an die „Deutsche Besetzung“ Ungarns am 19. März 1944 erinnern soll. Das Denkmal verwischt die Trennlinien zwischen Opfern und Tätern, indem es Ungarn bzw., nach der neuen offizielle Interpretation, „alle Opfer“ der Besetzung, in der Figur des Erzengels Gabriel darstellt, während alle Verantwortung den deutschen Nationalsozialisten in Form eines Adlers zugewiesen wird.

Christopher Adam, Historian, Carleton University, Canada
Eszter Andor, Remembrance Coordinator, Canada
Attila Ara-Kovács, Former Diplomat, Journalist, Hungary
Anna Balint, Independent Critic, Writer, Curator, Hungary
Zsófia Balla, Poet, Hungary
Eva S. Balogh, Historian, USA
Péter Bányai, Political Analyst, Romania
Anna Bayer, Human Rights Activist, USA
Nora Berend, Cambridge University, UK
Zsuzsa Berend, Sociologist, UCLA, USA
Gábor Betegh, Head of Department, Department of Philosophy, Central European University,
Hungary
László Bitó, Writer, Hungary
Randolph Braham, City University of New York, USA
Holly Case, Associate Professor, Cornell University, USA
Victor Caston, Professor of Philosophy and Classical Studies, University of Michigan, USA
Isabelle Cochelin, University of Toronto, Canada
Esther Cohen, Hebrew University, Israel
Vilmos Csányi, Ethologist, Researcher, Professor,
Vilmos Csaplár, Writer, Hungary
Erika Csontos, Editor, Hungary
Istvan Deak  Columbia University USA
Gábor Demszky, Former Mayor of Budapest, Woodrow Wilson Center, Hungary
Matyas Eorsi, Hungary
Robert Evans, Regius professor of History emeritus, Oxford University, UK
Borbala Farago, Professor, Researcher, Ireland
Gabriella Fekete, Psychologist, Hungary
Luc Ferrier, Groupe d’Anthropologie scolastique, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales,  France
Roy Flechner, Lecturer in Early Medieval History, University College Dublin, Ireland
Tamás Fodor, Actor, Director, Hungary
Tibor Frank, Economist, Businessman, Urban Innovative Solutions, Inc.  (UIS), Canada
Anna Fried, Canada
Laszlo Fried, Canada
Kinga Frojimovics, Historian, Archivist, Hungary
Zoltán Gendler Szabó, Professor of Philosophy, Yale University, USA
Susan Glanz, Professor, St. John’s University, USA
Peter Godman, Professor, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH), Germany
András B. Göllner, Concordia University, Canada
Nadia Gorman, Dartmouth College, USA
Gábor Halmai, Professor of Law; Visiting Research Schollar, ELTE; Princeton University, USA
Miklós Haraszti, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, Hungary
Roza Hodosan, Sociologist, Hungary
Ágnes Horváth, Professor of French Studies, ELTE BTK – Faculty of Philology, Hungary
Eva Illouz, Hebrew University, Israel
László Karsai, Szegedi Tudományegyetem/University of Szeged, Hungary
R. A. Kaster, Professor of Classics, Princeton University, USA
Erika Kiss, Associate Research Scholar, Director of Film Forum, Princeton University, USA
Géza Komoróczy, Professor Emeritus, Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary
Éva Kovács, Sociologist, Hungary/Austria
Péter Kovács, Art Historian, Hungary
Mária M. Kovács, Central European University, Hungary
János M. Kovács, Economist
Júlia Lázár, Writer, Teacher, Translator, Hungary
Paul Lerner, Associate Professor of History, Director, Max Kade Institute for Austrian-German- Swiss Studies, University of Southern California, USA
Balint Magyar, Sociologist, Hungary
Michael Marrus, Professor of History, University of Toronto, Canada
Stephen Menn, Professor of Ancient and Contemporary Philosophy, Humboldt-Universität zu  Berlin, Germany
Andras Mink, Archivist, Historian, OSA Archivum, Hungary
András Mohácsi, Artist (képzőművész), Hungary
Judit Molnár, Szegedi Tudományegyetem/University of Szeged, Hungary
Piroska Nagy, Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada
Zsuzsanna Ozsvath, Leah and Paul Lewis Chair of Holocaust Studies, University of Texas at  Dallas, USA
David Patterson, Hillel Feinberg Chair in Holocaust Studies, University of Texas at Dallas, USA
Anna Perczel, Architect, Hungary
Anna Porter, Writer and Publisher, Canada
Jeffrey Prager, Professor of Sociology, UCLA, USA
László Rajk, Architect, Hungary
Ruben A. S. Rein, Merchant, Techdec Informatica, Brazil
Jeannie Rifkin, Cosmetics Consultant,
Kim Lane Scheppele, Princeton University, USA
Tamas St.Auby, Artist, Hungary
Gisela Striker, Walter C. Klein Professor of Philosophy and of the Classics, Emerita, Harvard  University, USA
Judith Szapor, Assistant Professor, McGill University, Canada
Júlia Szilágyi, Writer,  Romania
Sándor Szilágyi, Writer on Photography, Hungary
Mihály Szilágyi-Gál, Philosopher, ELTE, Hungary
Gáspár Miklós Tamás, Hungary
Jozef A. Tillman, Artist, Hungary
Tamas Ungvari, Professor Emeritus,
Judith Vince, Hungary
Judy Young, Holocaust Survivor, Canada
Talia Zajac, University of Toronto, Canada
Froma I. Zeitlin, Emerita, Ewing Professor of Greek Language & Literature, Professor of  Comparative Literature, Princeton University, USA

The Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Year: One step forward, two steps backward

It was exactly a week ago that I wrote about the Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Year, which is still very much a topic of debate in Hungary. The core of the problem is the effort on the part of the Orbán government to rewrite the modern history of Hungary.

The problem started with the adoption of a new constitution that has a fairly lengthy preamble in which  the emphasis is on the concept of “nation.” The preamble is actually called “national avowal” and its first sentence reads “we, the members of the Hungarian nation.” For the sake of comparison the United States Constitution refers to the “people of the United States” and the modern constitution of Germany to “the German people.” As we will see a little later, this preoccupation with the idea of “nation” may have far-reaching consequences as far as the current controversy is concerned.

At the time of the release of the text of the preamble to the new Hungarian constitution a lot of legal scholars, historians, and commentators severely criticized it for being a hodgepodge of disconnected, unhistorical nonsense. But what must be an absolutely unique feature of this preamble is that the framers decided to eliminate 46 years, 2 months, and 5 days from Hungary’s history because the decision was made to “date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944, from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected organ of popular representation was formed. We shall consider this date to be the beginning of our country’s new democracy and constitutional order.” In plain language, Hungarians are not responsible for anything that happened during this “lost” period. It was immediately noted that the first Hungarian transports headed for Auschwitz and other death camps occurred after March 19, 1944. A lot of people suspected that this government was thinking of shifting the entire responsibility for the Holocaust on the Germans who, with the permission of Miklós Horthy, moved their troops into Hungary. Regardless of how often officials of the current Hungarian government repeat that they accept responsibility for the Holocaust, the new constitution claims otherwise. And that is the basic law of the land at the moment.

Sorry about these repetitive prefatory remarks, but in order to fully understand the thinking of Viktor Orbán, János Lázár, and other high officials of the government we must keep in mind the emphasis both on the “Hungarian nation” and on the alleged lack of sovereignty of Hungary. Giving up the idea of erecting a monument that depicts Hungary as the innocent and long-suffering Archangel Gabriel would go against the very core of this view of history. And when we find more and more references to “Hungarians and Jews” in government parlance, we must also keep in mind the nation-centric views that found their way into the new constitution. I maintain that as long as this constitution is in force there can be no meaningful discussion between Viktor Orbán and those who don’t subscribe to this warped view of history. Viktor Orbán may suggest to the leadership of Mazsihisz that “the dialogue should be continued after the Easter holidays,” but there can be no common ground between the two views.

Still, one ought to appreciate the fact that he made the gesture at all. Viktor Orbán rarely retreats. As his critics say, “he goes all the way to the wall.” It seems that this time he bumped into that wall, a wall of condemnation by a civilized Europe that doesn’t take Holocaust denial lightly. Let me quote here from a speech Ilan Mor, Israeli Ambassador to Hungary, delivered at the gathering to honor the recipients of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations awards. He said that “any attempts to rewrite or to reinterpret the history of the Shoa, in this country or elsewhere, for any reason, politically and/or ideologically, are part of the deplorable attempt to deny the Holocaust, the Shoa.” This is the kind of criticism the Hungarian government is facing when it tries to falsify history.

Just when we thought that, at least until April, we could have a little respite and prepare ourselves for the next round, János Lázár decided to upset the apple cart. He happened to be in Gyula, a city near the Romanian border, when he gave an interview to the local television station. During the interview the reporter asked him about Mazsihisz’s opposition to the government’s plans for the Holocaust Memorial Year. Lázár lashed out at the leaders of Mazsihisz, accusing them of wrecking the government’s plans for the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust. He charged them with fomenting discord between Hungarians and Jews who have lived in unity and symbiosis for centuries. According to him, the story of that common past was a real success. He predicted that Mazsihisz’s “ultimatum” will have a negative influence on the cohabitation of Jews and Hungarians. He added that he hopes “the local Jewish communities in conjunction with the officials of the municipalities will find a way to remember together.” Lázár expressed his belief “in the wisdom of the local Jewish leaders and even more so in the wisdom of the municipal leaders,” and he said he hoped that “this ultimatum was only part of a political move that will not be able to fracture that unity and symbiosis in which we have lived together with our Jewish compatriots in Gyula or for that matter in Hódmezővásárhely,” his hometown where he served as mayor until recently.

"Cohabitiation: Minority and majority in the Carpathian Basin Source: Amerikai Nepszava Online

“Cohabitation: Minority and majority in the Carpathian Basin”
Source: Amerikai Népszava Online

It was at this point that all hell broke loose and for good reason. First of all, Mazsihisz didn’t issue an ultimatum. Second, Lázár practically accused Mazsihisz of fomenting anti-Semitism in Hungary by not meekly accepting the falsification of history promulgated by the Orbán government. Third, it was especially tasteless to talk about Jewish/non-Jewish symbiosis and cohabitation in a provincial town. As is well known, there are practically no Jews left in Hungary outside of Budapest. The vast majority perished because Miklós Horthy wanted to start the deportations with those whom he considered to be the great unwashed. And fourth, what caused real furor was that Lázár excluded Hungarians of Jewish origin from the Hungarian nation. Commentators noted that this view comes straight from the Nuremberg laws and the anti-Jewish laws of Hungary. People are truly outraged.

Commentators are trying to figure out what motivated János Lázár to make a frontal attack on Mazsihisz. Some think that he was just careless and didn’t weigh his words. Perhaps in a more formal setting, they claim, he wouldn’t have said what he did. Others think that he is just outright stupid and/or crass.

I see it differently. Lázár is the messenger boy of Viktor Orbán. It is enough to recall the meeting between him and members of different Jewish communities. The participants were hoping for some solution to the impasse. It turned out that Lázár had no authority whatsoever to talk about anything substantive. He could only tell those present that he would relay the points they made to Viktor Orbán, who would answer them in writing. Therefore, I suspect that Lázár, when questioned in Gyula, simply repeated what he knew to be Viktor Orbán’s position. And I don’t think that I’m too far off when I predict that Viktor Orbán will not be any more malleable after Easter. Lázár’s words are only a forewarning of what lies ahead.

——

P.S. I would like to correct an earlier mistake of mine. I attributed a statement to Ambassador Mor that turned out to be erroneous. In his interview with Heti Válasz he did not speak critically of Mazsihisz as I assumed.

Viktor Orbán finally sent an answer, but the Jewish community’s boycott is still on

The deadline had long passed and Viktor Orbán’s promised answer to Mazsihisz’s three demands to ensure their participation in the events of the Holocaust Memorial Year still hadn’t arrived. So, it’s no wonder that Népszabadság headlined one of its articles “Orbán is ruminating.” And indeed, I don’t think that it was easy for a man who is not accustomed to retreating to admit that, despite all the power he acquired within the country, he might have to back down on the idea of erecting a monument to the German “occupation” of Hungary on March 19, 1944.

On February 16, in his “state of the nation” speech, he was still adamant and denounced those who “dare to tell us what we should or should not do, or what and how we should remember.” Commentators were convinced that Orbán would stand fast and wouldn’t give an inch.

There were other signs, however, that those harsh words were only for show. Zoltán Balog told ATV on Tuesday that the topic will most likely be “discussed” on Wednesday at the cabinet meeting. Mind you, we know from an earlier Balog interview that “discussing” something at the cabinet meeting means that all those present simply lend their support to Viktor Orbán’s decision. Still, he wasn’t the only one who indicated that the infamous memorial might not be in place on Szabadság tér on March 19. István Pálffy (KDNP) also suggested that it would be impossible to erect the structure given time constraints. Presumably they knew something even before the cabinet meeting.

Although word about the postponement became official only last night, the well-informed Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság already knew about the decision a few minutes after the cabinet meeting. Her sources indicated that there was intense international pressure on the government, including German disapproval. Israel also made its feelings known by requesting the newly appointed Hungarian ambassador to have a heart to heart with officials of the Israeli foreign ministry.

After the decision was reached, Orbán wrote his long-awaited letter to the leaders of Mazsihisz. In it he mentioned, as Fidesz politicians always do, that the Holocaust Center was established during the first Orbán government and that it was during his first term that they declared April 16 to be the day devoted to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. On the other hand, he completely ignored the controversy surrounding the Holocaust Memorial Year: the falsification of historical facts symbolized by the planned monument, the appointment of a far-right historian to a newly established institution called Veritas who considers the Kaments-Podolskii deportations and murders of mostly Hungarian Jews a simple “police procedure,” and the concept and the person in charge of the planned House of Fates. Instead, Orbán claimed that the reason for postponing the erection of the “Gabriel” statue is the campaign season for national and EU elections that takes place between February 15 and May 25.

The contents of this letter didn’t make the slightest difference as far as the leaders of Mazsihisz were concerned. They announced that there is nothing in this letter that would necessitate calling together the entire leadership which decided on the boycott in the first place. This is only a postponement of the statue, with no mention made of the two controversial historians, Sándor Szakály of Veritas and Mária Schmidt of the House of Fates.

Gordon Bajnai agreed with the Jewish leaders. He called the postponement of the erection of the monument no more than a “cynical avoidance of conflicts before the election” which does not address the core problem: “Falsification of history still remains falsification of history two or three months later.”

Two fundamentally opposing historical views are clashing here, and in my opinion truth is not on the Orbán government’s side even if they decided to name their new historical institute Veritas. I want to make one thing clear. It is not only the Jewish community that cannot accept the Orbán government’s efforts to rehabilitate the Horthy regime. More enlightened members of Hungarian society, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are only too aware of the respective Hungarian governments’ roles between 1920 and 1944 that resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews and non-Jews.

Some people are not surprised that in the last twenty-five years perhaps the majority of Hungarians refused to look critically at their own past. After all, they say, it is a painful process, and it took at least that many years for the Germans to do the same. So far so good, but the difference is that now, twenty-five years after the regime change, instead of turning the corner and facing harsh facts, the Orbán government is doing everything in its power to prevent the kind of dialogue that might result in a fair assessment of Hungary’s twentieth-century history. In fact, it is undoing the fairly sophisticated re-examination of the past that already began to take place in the second half of the Kádár regime. Admittedly, publications on the Holocaust and in general on Jewish affairs are much more numerous today than in the 1970s and 1980, but I still have some very valuable books from those days in my own library.

Finally, I would like to talk briefly about two issues. Today Ilan Mor, Israeli ambassador to Hungary, and Sándor Pintér, minister of interior, gave out decorations to those who saved Jewish lives at their own peril during the Holocaust. Ambassador Mor bestowed the Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations awards to the children or grandchildren of ten Hungarians. Alongside the Israeli awards, Sándor Pintér gave out decorations “For Bravery.” I didn’t find a lot of information on this bravery award except that it is given to firefighters. Even a German Shepherd dog received it not so long ago.

Mihály and Szabolcs Fekete-Nagy at the award ceremony

Mihály and Szabolcs Fekete-Nagy at the award ceremony

One of the awardees was Béla Fekete Nagy (1904-1983), a well-known painter, whose two sons were at the ceremony to receive their father’s posthumous award. Mihály and Szabolcs  Fekete-Nagy accepted the Yad Vashem award but would not accept the “For Bravery” decoration from Sándor Pintér. Mihály delivered a speech which the cameramen muffled, but the message was that they would defile the memory of their father if they accepted the decoration from the minister of interior of the Orbán government.

I also just learned that in the last four or five months the government allegedly stopped all subsidies to the Holocaust Memorial Center with the result that this month the Center cannot even pay the meager salaries to its employees. This stoppage of funds might be a bureaucratic mix-up, but given the present tense relations between the government and the Jewish community it might be more than that. Perhaps the goal is to put pressure on the Holocaust Center to convince Mazsihisz to be less rigid and make a deal with the Orbán government. Or there might be another explanation. As we have learned, the Orbán government had rather strong objections to the leadership and concept of the Center. Since, as Mizsihisz argued, two Holocaust centers in one city are not really necessary and since this administration came forth with the idea of the House of Fates, it might want to marginalize or eliminate the Holocaust Memorial Center. I’m just guessing, but whatever the reason it most likely reflects the Orbán government’s two-faced attitude toward the Hungarian Jewish community.