The reader should imagine a memorial plaque on the wall of a house: ‘From this house 36 people, including 10 children, were deported in March 1944, with the active participation of the Hungarian government, and murdered in Auschwitz, because they were born Jewish. Let us never forget them.’ And imagine similar plaques not once, but over and over again: on the houses where murdered Jews lived; on every school that the murdered Jewish children used to attend before they were deported; on every public building from which state officials helped the deportation; at every train station where the deported were forced into the wagons.
In Hungary, this is purely imaginary, but in Paris, it is reality. Some examples. ‘Over 6100 children were arrested in Paris with their families by the police forces of the Vichy government, the accomplice of the occupying Nazis; they were murdered in Auschwitz because they were born Jewish.’ On the building of a theatre, the plaque offered by the national syndicate of actors lists those actors who died in the war by name, always adding ‘died in active military service’, ‘died in deportation’, ‘died on the barricades’. ‘To the memory of the small children who attended this nursery, who were deported between 1942-1944 because they were born Jewish, the innocent victims of Nazi barbarism with the active complicity of the Vichy government. They were annihilated in death camps. Let us never forget them.’ ‘To the memory of the director, teachers and students of this school, who were arrested in 1943 and 1944 by the Vichy police and the Gestapo. They were deported and murdered in Auschwitz, because they were born Jewish.’ ‘To the memory of the 112 inhabitants of this house, of them 40 children, who were deported and died in German camps in 1942.’ ‘To the memory of the students of this school who were deported between 1942 and 1944 because they were born Jewish, the innocent victims of Nazi barbarism with the active complicity of the Vichy government. They were annihilated in death camps. Let us never forget them.’
In the Shoah Memorial (Mémorial de la Shoah) in Paris, there is a richly documented exhibition, with heart-rending photos and material remains. A dress, belonging to a 5-6 year old girl, who was murdered in a death-camp. Letters by children hidden in nunneries to their parents, discussing how much they await seeing them, how much they miss them. There was nobody to send the letters to, because, although the children didn’t know it, their parents were already murdered. Photos, on the one hand about the horrors, such as the skeletal cadavers of people in the camps, but even more horribly from everyday life before the war: on one of them, a well-groomed nice boy smiles for the camera. A few years later, separated from his parents, he was deported in a wagon without food or drink, tortured by medical experiments, and finally, together with other children who shared his fate, hanged. One can also see filmed interviews with those who hid and saved Jews. In the courtyard, a wall: the names of those murdered, in never-ending lines.
France fought against Nazi Germany; after the defeat, during the German occupation that lasted several years, a French government in exile organized fighting, and within France real resistance hindered the task of the occupying army. Many sacrificed their lives fighting against Nazism, and others were murdered by the Nazis to serve as a punitive example. In this way, the population of Oradour-sur-Glane fell victim to the Nazi German troops in 1944: the village was surrounded and its 642 inhabitants, including children, were massacred. Even so, the whole of France was not a victim of Nazi Germany. The responsibility of the collaborating Vichy government is by now well known, although its recognition took time, since collaboration and complicity were only really examined starting from the 1980s in France. Hungary was even less a victim: the government was Hitler’s ally, the German military occupation did not trigger mass resistance, nor was it followed by either the creation of a government in exile, or atrocities against the entire population (as opposed, for example, to Poland).
The blurring of victim and murderer is unacceptable, even if the latter perhaps finally died by a well-merited bullet. Not only is the memory of the murdered victims desecrated, but so is that of those who tried to do something to save the Jews (and these deserve every respect, although there were few Hungarian citizens among them) – and they did so not in order to convert them to Christianity, but because they respected the life of every human being as valuable.
In Hungary, responsibility has to be acknowledged both for a series of horrors committed before the German occupation: murders, anti-Jewish laws promulgated one after another through the decision of the Hungarian government; and for the willing collaboration in the deportation and murder of Jews and Roma, as well as the tortures and murders committed by the Hungarian Arrow-Cross party. A few gestures made to the outside world are not enough, which are immediately overwritten by the manipulation of the past in schoolbooks, rewritten history and the cult of the culprits. This knowledge and confrontation with the past must be inscribed in monuments and museums constructed for Hungarian society. The Holocaust Memorial Centre at Páva street would be the suitable venue, which in many respects resembles the Memorial of the Shoah in Paris, but in Paris they are building neither a new museum with government backing against which several organizations of those most affected by the war are persistently protesting, nor a self-exculpatory monument.*
The Hungarian government was guilty during the second world war in the extermination of Jews and Roma, as well as in irresponsibly sending Hungarian soldiers to the front. The many gendarmes and officials who made deportation possible were also guilty, as were those who denounced Jews in hiding, leading to their arrest. All this is part of Hungarian history.
It is time for all of this to be integrated into the historical memory of Hungarian society. It is impossible to make amends for the past. It is impossible to bring back the dead. But in the present, it is possible to build social peace, because the descendants of both the victims and the culprits must live together in such a way that they know and accept what happened, but in the present, can transcend it. The first step of such social peace is acknowledging the facts of the past and honoring the memory of those murdered. Those murdered because they were born Roma or Jew, those deported and annihilated with the active participation of the Hungarian government must be remembered in a way that reflects these facts. It is time to affix the plaques to houses in Hungarian cities and villages, further developing the example of the ‘Stolpersteine’ found in the inner city of Pest. It is time to name the victims: small children, the old, women and men who were humiliated, tortured, and, dragged through unimaginable horrors, murdered.
It is time to show solidarity to all those who bravely say no to the mendacious monument that is under construction. Mendacious, because it pretends that all were victims, without distinguishing between murderers, accomplices and real victims. Mendacious, because it would make foreigners take the responsibility that properly belongs to Hungarian society. I asked French friends what their opinion would be about a monument commemorating the Nazi occupation. In France, there was real occupation, with real resistance. In spite of that, they look at me with incomprehension: why would we want to erect a monument to the most shameful period of French history?
In Budapest, that is what is being constructed: a monument to Hungarian shame.
The article was first published in Hungarian in Népszabadság, 28 April 2014.
*After the original of this article was written, news of a contract between Veritas and the Holocaust Memorial Center was made public on 27 April, with more details emerging over the next days. Veritas is a historical institute created by the government to rewrite the past from a nationalist perspective, the director of which already made several historically inaccurate and ethically untenable statements in line with government ideology. The director of the Holocaust Memorial Centre, whose mandate terminated on 3 May, had no knowledge of the contract, which was signed by the head of the Board of Trustees, the members of which are appointed directly by the government without open competition. A few days before the end of his tenure, there was no information at all on how the Center’s direction will be ensured, and no call for applications for the position was issued.