Holocaust

Zoltán Tibori Szabó: Holocaust Memorial in Cluj/Kolozsvár

The author of today’s post is Zoltán Tibori Szabó, an associate professor at the Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj/Kolozsvár and a distinguished author and investigative journalist. His main interests are Transylvanian history as well as the history of the press, media law, and the Holocaust in Romania and Hungary.

The article published here is an English translation of the original Hungarian that appeared in Élet és Irodalom, a political and literary weekly, on June 13 following the unveiling of the Holocaust Memorial in Cluj/Kolozsvár on May 27. Those who were present have attested that it was a dignified event that included all segments of society regardless of political view or creed. It seems that Romania is ahead of Hungary, and not just as far as economic growth is concerned. In Hungary the protest on Szabadság tér continues. The contrast between Budapest and Cluj/Kolozsvár is striking.

Before World War I Kolozsvár had a population of 50,000, practically all Hungarian speaking, including 7,000 residents, or 14% of the population, who declared themselves to be of the Mosaic  faith (izraelita). Throughout the 1920s the population of the city kept growing; by 1927, according to the Magyar Zsidó Lexikon, the Jewish community had grown to 14,000. As you will see from Mr. Tibori Szabó’s article, in May 1944 18,000 Hungarian citizens of Jewish origin were deported to Auschwitz, where most of them perished.

We rarely have the opportunity to talk about Hungarian communities outside of Trianon Hungary. I am therefore especially pleased to be able to present this article, which describes the events that took place in Cluj/Kolozsvár in commemoration of the tragedy that occurred seventy years ago.

  * * *

Anna Horváth, the Hungarian Vice Mayor of Cluj/Kolozsvár was awarded the Friend of the Romanian Jewish Federation service medal by Aurel Vainer, the President of the Federation. Vainer also represents the approximately six thousand Jews of Romania in the Romanian parliament.  The Vice Mayor received this award as recognition for her initiation, persistent support and implementation, together with the Hungarian members of the city council, of the first Holocaust memorial in one of the public squares of Cluj/Kolozsvár. The memorial was built by the City Council, financed from public funds and it was unveiled during a dignified remembrance ceremony on May 27, exactly seventy years after eighteen-thousand Jews of Cluj/Kolozsvár were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the majority were murdered in gas chambers, their bodies were burned and their ashes were spread in the fields around the death camp or thrown into the nearby Vistula River.

As a matter of fact Anna Horváth persistently represented the position formulated already a year earlier by the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (RMDSZ). This position originated from facts, it forced a deep self-reflection  and reached a straight forward conclusion. The conclusion was that we, Hungarians, have to face most honestly what happened, we have to openly accept our part of responsibility and irresponsibility, we have to provide reparations to the survivors, where still possible, we have to work towards reconciliation with great tact, and we also have to explain to our own children everything that happened, to prepare them for similar inhuman aggressive manifestations, that in the future possibly may target exactly us/them; so that this kind of horror should not be repeatable ever again.

The facts, of course, include that the Holocaust in Northern Transylvania did not start in the spring of 1944 – as it is suggested from many places nowadays – but years before that. It started already during the fall of 1940, when, as a result of the Second Vienna Award, the Hungarian military authorities arrived to the returned Northern Transylvanian territories, and the often amazingly tactless military administration of the Hungarian motherland had begun. The first deportation started during these weeks-months, between October and December of 1940, when the Hungarian authorities collected the Jews from several localities in the Szekler counties, to transport them over the Soviet border – via Kőrösmező (today Yasinia, in Ukraine), through the Tatár-pass – to Soviet territory. This happened despite the fact that most of those deported were born in Hungary, until the Peace Treaty of Trianon (1920) they were Hungarian citizens and during the two World Wars Romanian citizens, thus based on the Vienna Award they became Hungarian citizens again.

It is a sad fact also, proven by plenty of archival documents and testimonies, that deportations from the Northern Transylvanian counties continued during 1941 and 1942, mostly through the same Kőrösmező – Tatár-pass route, as earlier. And they did not end with the bloodbath at Kamenets-Podolski that took place by the end of August, 1941. Between the fall of 1940 and the winter of 1942 the Hungarian authorities sent to their death approximately five thousand Jews from the Northern Transylvanian territories, mostly based on invented pretenses but in many cases following clear socio-economical goals.  Most of the victims were machine-gunned or shot in the head and buried in mass graves at Kamenets-Podolski or were executed in the ghettoes of Ukrainian Galicia or Transnistria.  According to eyewitnesses, dead bodies were floating in the Dniester River for days, among them many of the Jews from Northern Transylvania. A large proportion of those dragged away during this period from Northern Transylvania were Jews from the counties of Máramaros, Szatmár and Beszterce but there was also a substantial number from the counties of Bihar, Kolozs, Maros-Torda and the Szekler counties (Csík, Háromszék, Udvarhely). This mass slaughter, that was the second chapter in the North Transylvanian Holocaust, was also designed, organized and executed by the Hungarian authorities, but the foundation for it was laid by the anti-Semitic propaganda that started in Transylvania at the beginning of the 1930s; it was completed step-by-step in the press and from the church pulpit by the Transylvanian Hungarian population, mostly based on the model from Hungary, their motherland.

The third chapter in the large losses of lives among the Jewry of Northern Transylvania was caused by the drafting into labor battalions. Thousand of draft-age Jewish men were sent to the Eastern front – but without any weapons. And there the cruelties of the Hungarian army, the war itself, the famine and the quickly spreading infectious diseases ended the life of at least two thirds of the approximately fifteen thousand Transylvanian labor draftees.

The fourth and final chapter of the wild anti-Jewish war in the Hungarian-ruled Northern Transylvania was the mass deportation during the spring of 1944. After the occupation of Hungary by the Germans on March 19, 1944, the government of Döme Sztójay (appointed by Governor Horthy), in cooperation with the Germans, organized and with frantic speed completed the Northern Transylvanian chapter of the “final solution”.  The 1941 census counted in Northern Transylvania 151 thousand Jews and 14 thousand persons that were categorized as Jews based on the Hungarian racial laws of that era. Of these, between May and June of 1944, about 135 thousand people were gathered, pillaged, locked into ghettoes and then in three weeks they were all crowded into stock cars and deported to the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

During the four phases of the murderous regime four-fifths of the Northern Transylvanian Jewry perished. The number of Northern Transylvanian victims is estimated to be between 125 and 130 thousands. Out of the eighteen thousand people deported from Cluj/Kolozsvár more than thirteen thousand died, among them about four thousand innocent children under 14. To these victims was dedicated the worthy memorial by the people of Cluj/Kolozsvár. The memorial was dreamed up by the late Hungarian Jewish sculptor Egon Márk Löwith from Cluj/Kolozsvár. His idea was implemented by Tibor Kolozsi, the well known sculptor from Cluj/Kolozsvár (who wrote himself forever into the history of Transylvanian art, by expertly restoring the group of statues representing King Matthias, the Kolozsvár-born great Hungarian Renaissance ruler, in the main square of Cluj/Kolozsvár).

Holocaust Memoria, Cluj/Kolozsvár executed by Tibor Kolozsi following the design of Egon Márk Löwith

Holocaust Memorial, Cluj/Kolozsvár by Tibor Kolozsi following the design of Egon Márk Löwith

The memorial raised in the Postakert (today called the Caragiale Park) consists of five irregular granite prisms wedged into each other. Years ago, during a visit to Maestro Löwith’s studio he gave me a small explanation of his plan, whose concept was born during his stay at the Dachau concentration camp. The five prisms represent an important peculiarity of the Nazi concentration camps: the symbol of the five-person row of detainees. Five people, leaning all over, but grabbing each other, supporting each other, lifting each other, dragging each other, so that they remain standing. It is a symbol of the victory of life over madness and death, of the continuity of life – despite of the tragedy. I found it important to share this secret of the artist with the wide public, because many who looked at the monumentally stunning memorial in a superficial fashion, believed to see and count six blocks, assuming that it referred to the six hundred thousand Jewish victims of the Holocaust from Hungary or the six million Jewish victims from Europe.

The memorial’s base has an inscription in three languages: Romanian, Hungarian, and English. The English text reads as follows: ”In memory of over 18,000 victims of racial hatred, Jewish men, women and children, deported from Cluj and surroundings to Auschwitz, in May-June 1944.” Not anti-Hungarian, not anti-German, not anti-Romanian, not anti-Russian – simply anti-racist. This is reflecting the fact that the initiative of RMDSZ was introduced to the City Council by the representatives of the Hungarians of Cluj/Kolozsvár, where the representatives of the Romanians supported it unanimously. It also expresses that the memorial was implemented through exemplary cooperation of the right wing dominated Cluj/Kolozsvár City Council and the left oriented Romanian Social Democrat–RMDSZ coalition government and it concentrates only on the victims. It does not explain, it does not interpret history, it does not falsify. Simply: it recognizes, it expresses sympathy, it mourns.

It was a moving experience to see and to listen to the survivors who gathered from all over the world for the unveiling of the monument on May 27. One of them, Edit Balázs, an art historian and an academic, arrived from the North American continent. During the spring of 1944 she was dragged into the ghetto virtually from a class of the Jewish High School of Cluj/Kolozsvár and she was fifteen when she arrived to Auschwitz. She went through many ordeals and humiliations. In front of the monument she called herself lucky in her speech. To hell with such luck, I was thinking and watching the faces and gestures of those around me, I certainly was not the only one with this thought.  During the morning symposium organized at the Babeş-Bolyai University, in a crowded large room, several survivors described their Calvary.  In the afternoon, after the unveiling of the memorial and the Caddish said by the rabbi, some of those present were caressing the black stone blocks. “For me this is going to be my parents’ tombstone, because they were not given a tombstone” – said another survivor.

Cluj/Kolozsvár thus commemorated in a series of dignified events the catastrophe that occurred seventy years ago.  The scientific symposium held at the university, the moving discussions with the survivors, the reunion of the former students of the Jewish High School from all over the world, the presence of the children and grandchildren of the survivors, the mourning ceremony at the synagogue and the speeches and Transylvanian Jewish songs that followed – these just assured the frame for the unveiling under dignified circumstances, in a public square, in the Postakert, facing the old Poale Tzedek synagogue (now the Transit House, a facility of the modern culture and arts) and a whole row of houses once inhabited by Jews, of the Holocaust memorial. Thus the survivors could feel the empathy first of all of the Hungarians but also the Romanians of the city.

Some placed flowers on the memorial, others placed stones. They stood in line in front of the memorial: high school students, college students and retired people; Catholic priests, Lutheran and Reformed church leaders; the Transylvanian Orthodox Archbishop; Emil Boc, former Prime Minister and the Mayor of Cluj/Kolozsvár; Hunor Kelemen, the Deputy Prime Minister of Romania and Minister of Culture; Hungarian and Romanian politicians, university professors and other intellectuals. And Anna Horváth, the Hungarian Vice Mayor of Cluj/Kolozsvár, surrounded by grateful survivors. And many simple citizens of the city. They were moved. They were overcome by emotion. They had their heads bowed. They were dignified. They felt solidarity with the victims.

The war is on: The Hungarian government versus the media

During the Antall-Boross administrations after the change of regime (1990-1994), the government launched a full-fledged war against the media. At that time practically all Hungarian journalists were liberal. The right of center, which the government considered itself to be, was not represented in the print media or on television and radio. (At that time there was only one television station, MTV, and one radio station, MR.) The government tried to establish pro-government papers, but they were not financially successful. So, in the early months of 1994 the decision was made to get rid of all those journalists whom the government found objectionable at MTV and MR. Over one hundred journalists were fired just at Magyar Rádió. The government’s triumph was pyrrhic because a few months later MDF lost the election and the fired journalists triumphantly returned on the very day of the socialist victory.

The Orbán government’s “handling” of the media has been both more subtle and much more ruthless. It is true that the public television stations were again cleared of undesirables and by now these organs are no more than propaganda machines of the government, but there is no longer the need to establish pro-government newspapers because Fidesz in the last fifteen years or so managed to acquire a full-fledged media empire. It seems, however, that this is  not enough for Viktor Orbán, who wants to completely eliminate all independent and critical voices. The best way to achieve this is to strangle them financially and, if that is not enough, to intimidate them. And if that doesn’t work, the Hungarian government is ready to put pressure on media outlets via their owners as was the case in the Origo affair.

This latest war on the media has a new element. It looks as if the Orbán government wants to get rid of foreign owners of media outlets. Mysterious Hungarian owners managed to buy TV2, originally owned by the German media giant Prosiebensat1, and it looks as if the decision was made to kill off  the foreign-owned RTL Klub, the most popular commercial television station in Hungary.

I covered the beginnings of the RTL story but, since then, the war between the firm and the Hungarian government has only escalated.  In order to understand what’s going on we must understand that RTL Klub might be the most watched television station, but it is not known for its high quality programs. On the contrary, the level is quite low. People call the station “trashy.” Personally I don’t think that all TV networks should satisfy highbrow audiences and, if the Hungarian public enjoys the RTL Kub’s offerings, who are we to criticize. What, on the other hand, people rightly objected to was RTL Klub’s news programs. Almost as if there had been a tacit understanding between government and management concerning the choice of news items. Stories that cast a bad light on the government or its members were conveniently left out or underemphasized and hidden. In this way, the argument goes, RTL Klub hoped “to buy the goodwill of the government.” But, critics point out, there is no way to appease this government. If Viktor Orbán wants to get rid of you, sooner or later he will succeed. RTL Klub right now is in the way of the government. Why? Perhaps because it is a fierce and successful competitor of TV2 and its new owners, who are apparently close to Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. Hence, the advertisement levy seems to be designed to kill off RTL Klub.

So, what was the station’s answer? They decided to bring up all the dirty linen of the government that until now they had studiously ignored. It is funny to hear an old story from years or months back being dredged up suddenly. They also decided to report truthfully on the important stories of the day, including those they would have left out in the past.  RTL Klub is only doing now what any self-respecting television news program should be doing, and they should be ashamed of themselves for not having done the same in the past.

Well, this is not exactly how the Hungarian government sees it. The counterattack began already on June 14 when the prime minister’s office objected on its website that RTL Klub’s news mentioned the fact that Viktor Orbán’s father’s business has flourished despite the bad economic figures of the last few years. It was pointed out by the news editors that the elder Orbán’s business relies exclusively on state orders. This was translated by the prime minister’s office as an act of revenge because they have “to pay taxes in Hungary.” Antal Rogán, the whip of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, continued the attack on the station. The fact that RTL Klub’s headquarters are in Luxembourg comes in handy for Fidesz politicians because, as we know, there are several politicians from Luxembourg who are not to Viktor Orbán’s liking: Viviane Reding and Jean-Claude Juncker, for example. And now here is this Luxembourgian firm that uses its news “as a political weapon.” Rogán complained that it “intimidates and insults public figures,” even the prime minister’s father. It is sad, he continued, that “these billionaires from Luxembourg think they can do anything.”

rtl klub

This foreign media conglomerate looks upon Hungary as if it was its “colony,” János Lázár charged in Napi Gazdaság, another government mouthpiece recently acquired by Századvég. Moreover, he called RTL Klub a “corrupt firm.” After all, why didn’t it broadcast negative news items about the government and government politicians in the past? “If there is no tax there are no discrediting items; if there is, then come stories about Viktor Orbán’s father, daughter, or friend, Lőrinc Mészáros. This is unimaginable in any other country of the European Union,” he declared. He added that it was a mistake to let foreign companies own television stations in Hungary because  “they don’t possess the national point of view.” They are interested only in profit.

RTL’s management was not intimidated and rejected all accusations, while reiterating their belief in democracy and freedom of the press. They also stressed “the patriotism of  their employees.” RTL’s answer pointed out that freedom of the press is “a national treasure whose defense is the duty of all of us.” And the accusation that RTL Klub doesn’t pay taxes is a lie: just last year they paid 8.9 billion forints in taxes and other dues to the central budget.

Meanwhile the less than pleasant but true news items continue to be aired. 444.hu found at  least ten items in today’s news that reflect badly on the government, starting with the very questionable allocation of gambling concessions and ending with the U.S. statement on intimidation of civil society and media in Hungary, published also on Hungarian Spectrum. 

I have no idea who will win this fight. Most people think that it will not be the RTL Klub. But then all three television stations that can be watched nationwide without a cable subscription will be in Fidesz hands in one way or the other. That will mean that the government will control practically 90% of all the electronic media. Back to the good old days of the Rákosi and Kádár regimes.

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

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.