András Heisler

Mária Schmidt’s latest opus: The love story

Mária Schmidt is familiar to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. This latest article of hers also appeared in Heti Válasz, her favorite publication. Her vision of  Jewish-non-Jewish relations as a love affair goes against everything we know about the period between the two world wars. If Sorsok Háza (House of Fates) becomes an embodiment of that love affair, we will have a totally false depiction of Hungarian reality. No wonder that the Hungarian Jewish community has great reservations about the project.

I have no doubt that the Sorsok Háza will open its doors and that what we find inside will mirror Mária Schmidt’s strange vision of modern Hungarian history. She makes it clear here that the project is a government-funded undertaking and thus no one has the right to have any say in its execution.

Mária Schmidt started off as a promising historian in the late 1980s, but soon enough she changed her chosen profession to become a party propagandist. She became chief adviser to Viktor Orbán in the second half of the 1990s and provided the underpinning of  Fidesz’s historical ideology.

The question is how long she will be useful to Viktor Orbán. Her latest excursion into the field of historical propaganda was not exactly a success story. The controversial memorial to “all the victims of  the German occupation” of March 1944 did serious damage to the already badly tarnished reputation of Viktor Orbán and his regime. 

* * *

“The Holocaust represents a value, because it has led to immeasurable knowledge at the cost of immeasurable sufferings;
thus, there is an immeasurable moral margin in it.”

Imre Kertész

I have not seen S. Z. for decades. The last time I met him was in New York in the early nineties at the place of the outstanding historian T. J., a common friend of ours, who has sadly deceased since. We got to know each other in Oxford where both of them were teaching then. S. taught Jewish history, of which subject he is one of the most widely acknowledged American academic experts, and I spent some time there on a research grant. Then S. came to Budapest for a conference, and after he gave his presentation, we went out for dinner. We talked for hours, and a lot of topics came up including the “House of Fates,” about which he had already heard a lot back in Washington and of course also during his stay here. Those who volunteered to bring him up to date concerning the state of affairs in Hungary, about me and the would-be Holocaust museum, had spared no effort to dissuade him from meeting me, both via e-mail and then personally. They were probably unaware of our long time acquaintence  which gave me the advantage that he wanted to ask me his questions and hear my answers, which is what he did. So we talked at length about the new memorial site which is in the making. I told him about the concept of the exhibitions and of the education and training center. I showed him the exterior and interior visual designs, the interior fit-out and furnishing concept. We discussed the prospective permanent exhibition in most detail. Finally he said: “If I get it right, this is a love story. A story of love between Hungarian Jews and non-Jews. A love that has survived everything. As a result of which there is still a large Hungarian Jewish community living in this country.”

Yes. This is exactly what the “House of Fates – European Education Center” is all about. This is about decision makers’ intent to take an oath on a common fate shared by all Hungarians: Jews and non-Jews alike. About the commitment to make sure that just like our predecessors we can also plan a shared future despite the cataclysms of the 20th century. This is why it is crucial for young generations to get to know and understand what the tragedy of the holocaust meant for our national community as well as what the causes, circumstances, intents and forces that had underlain and fuelled anti-Semitism in Hungary and in Europewere. Who and why had poisoned the lives of our fellow countrymen categorized as Jews even before the fateful Nazi occupation of Hungary. How and why part of the last, nearly intact European Jewish community could be so swiftly annihilated in Nazi death camps. Who are responsible for all that? Who were the ones who remained humans amidst inhumanity because they opted for what is good, at the risk of even their lives and freedom in some cases. How could the survivors start anew and process what can hardly be processed. Why the majority of those people decided to stay here, to start their lives at home again and share what their fellow countrymen had to share. For this is something unparalleled, something that is not self-evident at all, particularly if we consider the fact that in this Central and Eastern European region, and nearly in the whole of Europe, survivors decided to leave and part with their past.

The House of Fates is made up of three parts, namely an exhibition, an education and a training section. Moreover, it has an up-to-date, well-equipped conference room, a room for hosting and staging temporary exhibitions and the required infrastructural background.

The exhibition section is divided into three units: A permanent exhibition that takes 50-60 minutes to tour. The area of this exhibition is shielded so that visitors cannot use any electronic device there. The story that is related here focuses on the period between 1938 and 1948, based nearly exclusively on recollections of survivors, and is supposed to touch the feelings of the visitor, make him interested and, ideally, to prompt him to ask questions. The installation and the narrative are both targeted at the 14 to 24 year-old generation.  Having toured this exhibition unit the visitor can proceed to see the “exploration” section or go on to look at the remaining “chamber” exhibitions.  Upon entering the exploration section the visitor is (or may be) given a tablet, with the most important information concerning the items on display, including names, dates, and a lexicon, along with questions and assignments. Those interested in the chamber exhibitions may decide to see them or to come back and visit them at a later date. As our plans stand at present, the chamber exhibitions will show Hanna Szenes, the Zionist resistance, Raoul Wallenberg, Margit Slachta, Sára Salkaházi and the 1944 story of the Józsefváros Railroad Station as well as the story of the Jewish community of Budapest’s 8th  district called Józsefváros. This is where the walls of perpetrators, those responsible and the humanitarian rescuers will be installed. A videostream will be played in the exploration room, showing visitors the most important events and personalities of those years. A number of computer workstations will also be installed where additional information and data can be collected and studied. Interactive workplaces will be created for browsing and searching for information.

At the training center there will be programs bringing as close as possible to members of the “Y generation” the very feeling and experience of being excluded, outcast and persecuted, while drawing their attention to the importance and inevitability of making a choice between good and evil and individual responsibility.

Importance is also attached to offering a training program to enable teachers to teach their students about the collective persecution to which entire social groups had been exposed under the dictatorships of the 20th century, with particular focus on the tragedy of the Holocaust.

It was seventy years ago, in 1944, that Hungary suffered one of the most horrendous tragedies in its modern-age history. The second Orbán cabinet took its decision on the creation of what is known as the “House of Fates” in the context of the memorial year relating to the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust. In remembering the national tragedy seven decades after, this memorial year is intended to be a site of “creating order in our common matters” and have “peace flow through our rembrance and regard”1. In the context of the memorial year, the government has allocated a HUF 1.5 billion budget to social programs and it adopted a decision building up the Memorial to the Child Victims of the Holocaust – European Education Center at the site of the former Józsefváros Railroad Station.  I was entrusted with the role of leading the professional project team, while the implementation of the investment project was assigned to Government Commissioner Dr. Balázs Fürjes.

This assignment is a real honor for me but it is an immense responsibility and workload at the same time. It took me quite a while, wavering whether to undertake it at all. My children tried to dissuade me. As did some of my friends. One argument against taking up this job was that I would be exposed to relentless and fierce attacks. And even if all goes well, which I have staunchly believed up to this very day, I may expect nothing but denigration. Finally, I answered yes, out of love for my country. I hoped that through such an immense and successful undertaking I could perhaps make a contribution to reconciliation, to a discussion of the tragedies of the past to settle issues and to at least alleviating, if not bringing to an end, all of the evil and purposeless accusations constantly experienced even today. Thereby neutralizing or at least weakening the forces continuously calling Hungary an anti-Semitic and fascist country, using these unfounded stigmata as a political weapon to discredit the Hungarian nation as a whole. Indeed, I expected all of those who already started a media campaign against the  House of Terror Museum and spared no effort to discredit it both in Hungary and abroad, to activate themselves again, and, alas, so they did, wasting no time. The same individuals and circles, with the same vehemence, started the same ruthless attack driven by the same motives both in Hungary and abroad, against me and the prospective memorial site, unleashing that orgy of hate which is so characteristic of them. This is why the “House of Fates” project became, right from the beginning, a target of a series of attacks lead, most unfortunately, by the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Faith Communities (MAZSIHISZ). For as we were approaching the 2014 election campaign the neolog Jewish religious organization undertook to launch a frontal attack against the government – yielding to circles of intellectuals dissatisfied by the weakness and wavering of the anti-government forces – threatening to boycott the memorial year. They put together a package of three demands, calling for the discontinuation of the sculpture composition designed for Szabadság Square in remembrance of Hungary’s Nazi occupation, the removal of director-general Sándor Szakály from the helm of Veritas, a new historical research institute and a right to control and supervise the creation of the House of Fates.

sorsok haza projekt

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán tried to remove the politically motivated onslaught from among the campaign themes by inviting Jewish organizations to consultations after the elections.  Nonetheless, MAZSIHISZ and  its supporters continued their relentless campaign and their  attacks on the House of Fates. They threatened and tried to blackmail everybody cooperating with us or even considering accepting our invitation. They bombarded the members of the International Advisory Board with e-mail messages, as well as anybody else whom they could contact. They spread their accusations all over the place both in Hungary and abroad. In collaboration with certain leaders of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington – who have, to be honest, been rather negatively biased against us in the first place –, they turned Yad Vashem against us.

They are continuously inciting the Israeli Hungarian community as well. Among other charges, they argue that the name “House of Fates” is wrong or misleading, the location is not authentic, or if it is, then it is too particular; the deadline set by the government is too short for such complex work to be carried out properly, and then within one month of my appointment I was attacked for not having worked out a finished scenario. A public auto-da-fé was staged in the “Bálint House” where Professor András Gerő, arguing in favor of and working in the project team, was subjected to a ritual execution (also instead of me) by MAZSIHISZ employee László Karsai posing in the role of the grand inquisitor, in unison with the rather hot-tempered audience.

INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE

This had seemed likely to come; indeed it was to be expected. I went and kept going through this before, during, and for years after, the opening of the House of Terror Museum. However, the like of the direct and intensive international pressure I have experienced in relation to this assignment I did not even have to face at the time of the creation of the House of Terror Museum.  At that time it was only Mr. Mussatov, the then Ambassador of Russia, who protested against the new museum but his objections were settled through a joint tour of the exhibition and a discussion. The former diplomat has delivered presentations at several of our conferences since then. In regard to the “House of Fates”, however, ambassadors of a number of western countries feel compelled to lecture me on how to interpret, indeed, how we all Hungarians should interpret our 20th century history, with a special focus on the role of Miklós Horthy. I have had to sit through countless lectures delivered by western diplomats about Horthy, Hungary’s “revisionism”, the collaboration of Hungarians etc., and all of them represented countries whose history offers at least as many, if not even more, very good opportunities to raise uncomfortable questions. I was asked as early as just before Christmas 2013 by US Deputy Chief of Mission Mr. André Goodfriend – of course on a strictly “friendly” basis – for a list of the names of those working on the House of Fates project. Then a fortnight later he told me – again, on a friendly basis – that he did not agree with the participation of some of those included in the list. “I wasn’t aware that you needed to agree” was my response, also on a friendly basis. The Ambassador of the UK to Hungary assured me that Her Majesty’s government was avidly interested in the Hungarian Holocaust. This is very nice of them, particularly in view of the fact that their predecessors weren’t so very deeply concerned while the annihilation of European and particularly of Hungarian Jewry was underway. Both these gentlemen and a dozen or so of their fellow diplomats expressed their expectations and wishes in regard to the prospective exhibition. Hungary’s ambassadors in both Tel Aviv and Washington were summoned by the Departments of Foreign Affairs because of me, complaining about a remark I had made at a book presentation event, along the lines that the post-World War I system of dishonest peace treaties had been the most devastating tragedy of the 20th century and that a fair and unbiased approach should be taken when forming an opinion about Horthy’s role in history just like in the case of Kádár’s role, rather than viewing these political leaders strictly in black and white. Foreign diplomats, particularly some of the responsible officers of the US voiced their definite expectation that it should only be appropriate and necessary for the Hungarian Government to invite an international committee of historians to commit Hungary’s 20th century history to paper for us, Hungarians. They keep applying pressure to achieve such a governmental assignment. Even the US Foreign Secretary had been mobilized to achieve this end. I am particularly proud of the fact that during the latest Arab-Israeli armed conflict, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanjahu managed to find the time to send a letter to Viktor Orbán, voicing his concerns about my humble self and the House of Fates project.

As a consequence of internal political skirmishes and the unprecedented international pressure applied, both MAZSIHISZ and Yad Vashem withdrew from the International Advisory Board of the House of Fates project.  The rest of the members were also brought under pressure, to make it impossible for that board to continue its work. Therefore, instead of the next scheduled meeting of the international advisory board, we could only hold a consultation where the members present (Michael Wolffsohn and Joshua Muravchik) liked and were satisfied with our concept.

The situation changed somewhat by the middle of this summer. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Douglas Davidson and Sir Andrew Burns of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) ascertained, each of his own, that the misgivings concerning and attacks against the project are utterly groundless, and therefore it would be rather difficult to explain why they withdraw their support from a memorial site that will be Europe’s largest and very likely most grandiose and sophisticated such project.

Based on an initiative put forth by Director of International Jewish Affairs for the American Jewish Committee Rabbi Andrew Baker, a consultation took place in Budapest on July 28 among the House of Fates, the Páva Street Holocaust Memorial Center, MAZSIHISZ and IHRA, to remove obstacles from continued cooperation. The experts participating in the meeting raised no objection whatsoever against the contents of the exhibition and had no proposal or idea of relevance to be put on the table.  After half a day of discussions the parties agreed that a working group to be formed of the representatives of international Holocaust experts would help us with our work in regard to both the exhibition and education. The agreement so reached was broken up by MAZSIHISZ within 24 hours, again without any sound reason at all, asserting that the text that was published in the form of a press release was not the same as the one that had been agreed on, despite the fact that the president of MAZSIHISZ had approved this text beforehand in an e-mail message. Within another 24 hours IHRA  gave its support to this attitude.

The attitude of the foreign experts and officials is characterized by nothing better than what IHRA’s English Chairman Sir Burns told me at the end of the meeting in July – suggesting, again, of course, on a strictly friendly basis that I should no longer write articles, thereby referring to my text entitled Captive of the Past concerning the Szabadság Square memorial which had appeared a few weeks earlier in the weekly Heti Válasz. He and Mr. David Cesarini justified this piece of advice by referring to my responsibility for the House of Fates project which I must not jeopardize by publishing essays of sorts. All of these developments only deepened my awe and admiration of the developed western world, on account of its deep and staunch commitment to the freedom of speech and thought, even if I am beginning to vaguely recognize how much there still is for us to learn here, on the outskirts of the developed world, before we can also fully enjoy this privilege. Until then, we should best refrain from writing articles or doing things such as thinking about our own history – rather, we should be grateful and accept that all of these missions will be undertaken by them instead of ourselves, for our benefit.

MAZSIHISZ

The party-state dictatorship set up a single tightly controlled organization to lead Hungarian Jews actively practicing their religion through which it could simultaneously control both the internal affairs and the international relations of the Hungarian Jewry. Only the most determined individuals remained members of Jewish organizations during the decades of the party-state rule, partly owing to the above mentioned strict supervision and partly because open expression and practicing of one’s Jewish identity definitely did not meet the approval of the Communist authorities, in some cases entailing the devastating accusation of being a “Zionist”, in most cases with gruesome consequences. Members failed to flock to religious communities in large numbers despite the “Jewish Renaissance” that followed the political regime change. Those communities are still made up primarily of a few hundred – mostly elderly pensioner – devotees. Consequently, the leaders of those religious communities – just like the organizations they are heading – enjoy no general acceptance in Hungarian society, as has been increasingly revealed by a long series of scandals that have broken up in recent times.

No matter how a variety of influential international Jewish organizations as well as Israel’s representatives and diplomats have hastened to back them up, Hungarian society cannot be persuaded or forced to accept an official who first turned from transvestite performing artist into Lutheran theologian and Catholic parish choir master, and then on to the executive director of the Budapest Jewish Community, who is, according to the chairman of the Community, is not even of Jewish origin; or a former executive director banker who had been convicted for bribery. It is also clear for all interested outsiders that the current Chairman of MAZSIHISZ is not seeking an agreement in relation to the House of Fates but he is trying to improve his position to get re-elected by fully exploiting the media interest concerning the prospective memorial center. The Chairman of MAZSIHISZ is posing in the role of a relentless representative and promoter of the organization’s interests to prove his indispensability towards a handful of voters as well as international Jewish organizations and Israel. This is why he keeps upsetting all agreements and imposing new and then further demands and conditions. This is why he has formulated such demands in relation to the House of Fates that had never been and are still not considered to be of importance in relation to the Páva Street Holocaust Memorial Center, which is alleged to be very important to both him and the international Jewish organizations. During the past more than a decade the leaders of the Jewish religious community have never been able to contribute to creating the necessary environment and conditions for undisturbed and efficient work at the Páva Street institution, as is eloquently proven by the miserably low numbers of visitors and the unceasing internal skirmishes. And these unblessed circumstances were not in the least different during the eight-year period when they were cooperating with a Socialist-Free Democrat coalition government.  As a matter of fact, MAZSIHISZ leaders are driven by their own self-interests when they keep provoking fruitless conflicts with the government, whatever action the government happens to take. In attacking the House of Fates, they will even find it worthwhile to obstruct worthy remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust and our murdered compatriots.

In the autumn of 2014, Mr János Lázár the minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s Office who played a leading role in devising and organizing the memorial year for the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust; in putting in place the Szabadság Square memorial and the launching of the creation of the House of Fates, offered an adviser’s contract, much to the consternation of all, to Mr Gusztáv Zoltai, who had  played a leading role in blocking all of the above programs, until his dismissal in early April 2014. According to the arguments then put forth by MAZSIHISZ Chairman András Heisler, Holocaust surviving Zoltai had been so severely affected by the government’s intent to erect a memorial for the victims of Hungary’s German occupation, that he resigned from all of his positions. Heisler himself opted for a different strategy, by turning for help as usual to international public opinion. Zoltai, who used to be a 1956 Communist militiaman, a member of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP), a former member of the communist workers’ militia, headed MAZSIHISZ as an executive director from 1991.

His demonstrative inclusion on the government side was explained by the minister by pointing out that he “did not regard advisory services as some monkey business” and that they had known each other for quite some time. Public consternation was only further aggravated by János Lázár’s promise that the House of Fates would be opened “only in the framework of a consensual solution “, i.e. only if the domestic and international Jewish organizations, most recently, Hungarian Holocaust survivors and “those who suffered the tragedy”, find it to be acceptable and agree with its “professionalism”. Nothing could be more natural than Mr. Heisler’s interpretation: the minister gave them the right of veto concerning the House of Fates project.

Accordingly, the Faith Community, a religious organization representing about two thousand individuals will exercise censorship over the contents of one of the government’s important large scale projects, and will determine its view of history and its message. No such thing has happened in Hungary ever since the separation of state and church towards the end of the 19th century.

To let international Jewish organizations have a say without having contributed a single penny to the costs of setting up the institution is contrary to the responsibility of the sovereign Hungarian state for its own past, present and future.
In an interview with the daily Népszabadság (September 26, 2014) János Lázár repeatedly expressed that the moral values, the kind of community of shared values determining the political right, mean nothing to him. He finds criticism concerning his employment of Zoltay to be immaterial; indeed, he considers “any form of ex-post evaluation from the outside” of his newly hired adviser, to be a mistake. Let us not be surprised when using the same argument he invites one of these days the very Ferenc Gyurcsány to work for him as a government advisor, to whose Őszöd address Mr. Lázár referred the other day as a positive example.

Mr. Lázár apparently fails to understand that this time we are dealing with our very identity. This is not about practices in wielding power or safe bargains concluded in the background, but about principles, belief, all of the things on which our whole life, including our political community rests and is built. We have seen lots of examples during the past 25 years how disregarding principles and moral convictions lead to the loss of all values and then the collapse of entire political communities. When politics appear to be reduced to all-pervasive cynicism and bare immorality, the countdown will immediately start.

When I undertook to create what will be called the House of Fates, I knew what attacks I would be in for.  I undertook the job nonetheless, because I am convinced that my country needs to make sure that young generations also learn that preserving solidarity towards each other is one of our most important common values, and giving it up leads to immense losses and tragedies in the past, and the same would be bound to happen in the future as well. I am convinced that processing the past of our nation as well as presenting and teaching the lessons drawn from it are our tasks and responsibilities which we do not want to and will not evade. This is a cause for our national community that cannot be influenced by any particular or external interests. Not even if Mr. Lázár holds other views on this. The happy ending of the Love Story is at stake.
We must not let it get botched up. I for one will definitely do my share to prevent that.

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

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

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

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

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

Gusztáv Zoltai, the boss of Mazsihisz

Gusztáv Zoltai as boss of Mazsihisz

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retreat or another “peacock dance” by Viktor Orbán?

Something must have happened between yesterday afternoon and this morning in the Prime Minister’s Office. János Lázár, the minister in charge of the office, has been waging war for some time on at least two fronts, the Norwegian government and the Hungarian Jewish community. In both cases he now seems to be retreating, although his move may turn out to be, as has happened so often in the past, merely a tactical ruse–one step back and, once the glare of the spotlight dims, two steps forward.

Lázár has been trying to make changes in the original agreement regarding the disbursement of the Norwegian Funds, changes that the Norwegian government refused to accept. Then, in order to pressure the Norwegians to release the funds that they had withheld, the Hungarian government began to harass an independent foundation that was in charge of grants given to NGOs by the Norwegian Civic Funds. The latest attack, about which I wrote yesterday, was the most aggressive to date, but it did not shake the resolve of the Norwegian government. By noon today Vidar Helgesen, Norwegian minister in charge of European Union affairs, made it crystal clear that what happened yesterday in the office of the Ökotárs Foundation was unacceptable as far as his government was concerned.

Moreover, yesterday’s raids produced no damning evidence against the foundation. They will not be able to jail Veronika Móra, the director of the foundation, because she has done nothing wrong. At least, according to legal opinions I heard. It was thus high time for the government to throw in the towel.

As we know, Viktor Orbán, because naturally he is the man behind the attacks on the foundation and the NGOs, is not the kind of guy who likes to admit defeat. And he really wanted to stifle the anti-government voices being funded by the Norwegians. But the 45 billion forints the Norwegians were withholding, the bulk of their grant money that goes directly to the government, was hurting the public purse. This morning János Lázár announced that the Hungarian government will ask the European Commission to be the arbiter between the Hungarian and the Norwegian governments. Since a special EU office in Brussels has been supervising the activities of Ökotárs Foundation and has found nothing illegal about its activities, the outcome of the decision is not really in question. But at least Viktor Orbán can tell his people that, although his government is right, the bureaucrats in Brussels decided otherwise. Hungary had no choice but to oblige.

There might have been two other considerations that tipped the scales in favor of retreat. One is that, according to unnamed sources, Tibor Navracsics’s nomination has been unfavorably influenced by, among other things, the Norwegian-Hungarian controversy. Moreover, the raid on the foundation’s office, which was received with dismay abroad, coincided with the appearance of an op/ed piece in The New York Times by Philips N. Howard, a professor at the Central European University and the University of Washington, which only reinforced the commonly held view that Viktor Orbán is a man who cannot tolerate a free media. And, as the Norwegian controversy made evident, he would like to silence independent NGOs as well. The biting illustration that accompanied the article has since been reprinted in several Hungarian publications. If it had not been clear before, it had to be obvious by now that Viktor Orbán had gone too far. It was time to recall the troops.

The same thing seems to be happening on the Hungarian Jewish front. The government alienated the Hungarian Jewish community by making several controversial, unilateral moves. I wrote earlier about these government actions, starting with the appointment of Sándor Szakály as the director of a new historical institute and the designation of Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror, to head a new Holocaust Museum. The final straw was the decision to erect a memorial to commemorate the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. The result was a complete breakdown in communication–and trust–between János Lázár and the leaders of the Jewish community. Then, after months of silence, at the end August it became known that the government was ready to make concessions. The routinely scheduled  September meeting took place today and, indeed, it seems that the Hungarian government finally decided that it was time to come to some understanding with the Jewish community.

The meeting that lasted for four hours was a large gathering, including 60 people representing several Jewish organizations. Yet, according to András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, thanks to the disciplined behavior of the representatives real progress was made on all eight points that were on the agenda. Although the Jewish organizations did not change their attitude on such vital issues as the House of Fates, the government offered several peace offerings. The government promised, for example, to spend up to a billion forints to fix up Jewish cemeteries that are in very bad shape in most cities and towns. Lázár promised to invite the head of the Kúria, Hungary’s supreme court, the minister of interior, and the head of the judicial office to talk over practical moves to be taken in cases of anti-Semitic activity. Lázár seemed to be ready to discuss the renovation of the synagogue on Sebestyén Rumbach Street that might serve two functions: it will be a functioning place of worship as well as a museum. Lázár also promised to renovate the synagogue in Miskolc.

The large gathering of the Jewish Round this morning Népszava / Photo József Vajda

The Jewish Round Table this morning
Népszava / Photo József Vajda

Although all these goodies were offered to the Jewish communities, the representatives refused to change their position on the boycott of the government organized events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. They remained steadfast even though the government gave in on one serious bone of contention–the exhibit at the House of Fates. Lázár personally guaranteed that no exhibit will be mounted without the active cooperation of the Hungarian and international Jewish community. Interestingly, the controversial designated head of the project, Mária Schmidt, was not present.

All in all, it seems that there is a general retreat. Whether it is real or not we will find out soon enough.

Federation of Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz) versus Mária Schmidt

Back in December 2013 I predicted that the creation of a new Holocaust memorial museum, the House of Fates, would be a very controversial issue. I wrote at this time that both Mária Schmidt, the revisionist historian of the Holocaust who was named to head the project, and the Orbán government “have very definite ideas about what they want and what they don’t want. They certainly don’t want an exhibit that exposes the responsibility of the Hungarian government and those 200,000 people who actively worked on the deportation of more than 600,000 people within a couple of months.”

And indeed, the project that still hasn’t quite gotten off the ground has been nothing but a bone of contention between the Jewish community, which was supposed to receive the museum as something of a gift for the seventieth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust, and Mária Schmidt as the representative of the government.

The presence of Mária Schmidt as the person responsible for the preparation of the plans aroused suspicion in the Jewish community because of her revisionist views. There was fear that Schmidt would create a museum like the House of Terror, whose exhibit is not an accurate portrayal of the history of 60 Andrássy Street, the site of the headquarters of  both the Arrow Cross party and ÁVH, the national security forces of the Rákosi regime. The fear was and still is that this new museum will try to alter the accepted history of the Hungarian Holocaust by adopting the views of Mária Schmidt, which most historians find untenable.

Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of various Jewish groups, demanded the removal of Mária Schmidt as head of the project. Within a few months, however, it became clear that Mária Schmidt would remain.

Then, after a couple of months of seeming quiet, behind the scenes negotiations took place between Schmidt and leaders of  the Hungarian and international Jewish community. The latter desperately tried to find a way to have at least some say in the concept and eventually functioning of the museum. At last, on June 30, the following agreement was allegedly reached:

Upon an initiative by Rabbi Andrew Baker, who joined the International Advisory Board of the House of Fates project in his capacity as Director of International Jewish Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, Mária Schmidt, the historian in charge of the professional side of the project, briefed András Heisler, Chairman of Mazsihisz (the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities), and Sir Andrew Burns, the Chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), together with a number of international and Hungarian experts on the progress made since the project was launched in 2013.

Participants agreed on a five point “road map” to be followed with a view to promoting the successful completion of the project.

  1. The Páva Street Holocaust Museum and Documentation Centre and the future House of Fates will co-operate and complement each other. Páva Street provides a permanent exhibition of the Holocaust as well as serving mainly as a center for research and documentation. The House of Fates will offer exhibitions directed toward young people while also serving as a center for education and training.
  2. Participants agreed that in addition to the International Advisory Board an international working group of academic experts will be set up in cooperation with IHRA to give feedback on the historical content and context of the exhibition.
  3. A similar academic working group will be set up in cooperation with IHRA to help in shaping the educational material and methods of the future Educational Centre which will be an integral part of the House of Fates project.
  4. Steps will be taken to establish regular contacts and exchanges of views between the House of Fates project and Mazsihisz.
  5. The outlines of the exhibition will be presented to the full membership of the International Advisory Board and subsequently opened up to the public at large in the autumn.

It looked as if the hatchet had been buried and that the two sides were getting closer to some sort of agreement. At the same time, however, there were troubling signs that the “road map” was in reality a worthless piece of paper because everything was proceeding apace without any consultation with Mazsihisz and other Jewish organizations. For example, on July 18 the Official Gazette (Magyar Közlöny) reported that the project had been enlarged. The government had generously added another 667 million forints for the restoration of three other buildings belonging to the railroad station. Thus the whole project will cost 7.2 billion forints. And the House of Fates will function under the auspices of the same foundation that is in charge of the House of Terror.

The House of Fates under construction

The House of Fates under construction

In the interim Schmidt indicated that she wanted to concentrate only on the deportations and nothing that preceded them. She claimed that the existing Holocaust Memorial Center deals with this period and there is no need to duplicate its work here. But it is hard to imagine an “education center” on the Holocaust that ignores both the widespread anti-Semitism that existed in Hungary and the government’s role in the anti-Jewish laws.

Then came several seeming blows to Mária Schmidt’s project. First, Mazsihisz (Federation of Jewish Communities) released a statement on the requisite conditions for future cooperation between Mazsihisz and the House of Fates project:

The president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities in Hungary – as he had agreed with the Prime Minister – attended on July 28 a consultation about the House of Fates project and a site visit of the future museum.

On July 30, the office of Dr. Maria Schmidt issued a declaration about the meeting. The content of the declaration was not truthful to the statement agreed by the participants at the meeting.

At the meeting, Dr. Maria Schmidt made the false declaration that she had no information on the future operation of the museum. In fact, ten days earlier, the government by its resolution 1390/2014.(VII.18) ordered the ‘Middle- and Eastern European History and Society Research Public Foundation’, directed by Dr. Maria Schmidt, to operate the House of Fates Museum.

This yet another unconsulted government decision, and the untrue declaration by Dr Maria Schmidt, undermined all agreements previously achieved.

In order to restore transparency and good faith, MAZSIHISZ specifies the following conditions for its cooperation with the House of Fates and its directing institution, the Middle- and Eastern European History and Society Research Public Foundation.

  • The interpretation of history at the House of Fates should be in line with that of the universally accepted exhibition in the Holocaust Documentation and Research Center in Páva Street, Budapest.
  • The House of Fates should reach an agreement on the composition and competence of the academic working group supported by IHRA. The educational working group should also be set up and its competence should be clarified.
  • The expert group of MAZSIHISZ should continuously participate in shaping and controlling the scenario and the educational material.
  • In setting up the team of exhibition guides, the House of Fates project should use the knowledge and the commitment of the experts educated at the Rabbinical Seminary – Jewish University, which is the higher education institute of MAZSIHISZ.
  • The operation of the House of Fates should be controlled by a body consisting in equal proportions of individuals selected by the government; the international academic experts; and the scholars delegated by MAZSIHISZ. Such a body would guarantee the politically independent operation of the institution under any future government.
  • A precise schedule of the preparations should be drawn up, and both the participating members and the public at large should be notified. The dates should be accepted by all participants of the July 28 meeting.

MAZSIHISZ hopes that by accepting and observing the above terms the House of Fates will become a worthy memorial of the hundreds of thousands innocent victims of the Hungarian Holocaust.

And then followed the statement of  Sir Andrew Burns, chairman of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance:

Contrary to media reports, IHRA will not be in a position to endorse the House of Fates concept until the consultations with the national and international experts as well as with the Hungarian Jewish Community have been taken into account. Dr Heisler has published a letter to Dr Schmidt about the points of concern to the Jewish community which are shared by IHRA. Close cooperation with Mazsihisz is not only desirable but essential in ensuring the integrity of the project.

Meanwhile work on the future museum is proceeding. According to Mária Schmidt, the grand opening will occur sometime in the fall. Mazsihisz’s refusal to support the project will not deter her or the government whom she represents from carrying it to completion. Even if, as András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, said, “it will be the only Holocaust memorial center in the whole world which would be created without the participation of the local Jewish community and one which has not taken into consideration its views.”

Sándor Kerekes: Hungarian democracy in a nutshell*

I am speaking about democracy in a nutshell today, because that’s pretty well all that is left of Hungarian democracy by today. In fact, it is even quite loose in that nutshell, after having shrunk so small.

On December 31 2013, in the late night hours, as the country was well on its way to getting drunk and celebrating the new year, the Official Gazette of the Hungarian government published the text of a theretofore unheard-of Order: “About the memorial to be erected in Budapest’s fifth district and qualifying it as an overriding national economic importance and the appointment of the competent authorities.” This is just the title! You can imagine what follows.

But let me translate the details. The fifth district is the historic center of Budapest. The “overriding national economic importance” is the legalese term lifted from a not so long before enacted piece of legislation that enables the government to avoid any public tender process and, regardless of the size of the project, to award it to whomever they please, without any disclosure or explanation. This is corruption writ large, carved in legislative stone. (The price was found out later to be 311 million forints, or $1,399,671). The memorial is intended to stand on Freedom Square, a storied and beautiful public place, rife with social and historical significance, just under the windows of the US Embassy, and to be ready on the 19th of March 2014, on the anniversary day of the German occupation of 1944.

A short break for explanation
You must forgive the interruption, if I stop to explain. The winged figure, according to the artist’s technical description, is the defenseless and innocent Archangel Gabriel, symbolizing the defenseless and innocent Hungary, savagely attacked by the imperial eagle of the Third Reich. Of course, you all know that, far from innocent, Hungary was a staunch ally of Hitler, benefitted from the alliance and received the occupiers with open, welcoming arms at the time. This memorial is nothing but the most blatant, revisionist falsification of history. The intended spot for the memorial is on top of an underground garage, whose roof had to be enforced to bear the weight, so the deadline had to be extended to the end of May.

Naturally, you may ask: who could think it desirable to memorialize and celebrate the day of national humiliation, the source and the beginning of untold suffering and bloodshed?

Well, it is the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

As you see, PM Orban himself is not at all averse to flaunting some eagles of his own.

PM Orbán himself is not at all averse to flaunting some eagles of his own.

The rush to the slope
But how did we come to this point?

Well, in the election, May 2010, Viktor Orbán and the FIDESZ party won an overwhelming majority. The electorate was thoroughly fed up with the previous Socialist-Liberal coalition and wanted change. They elected the only alternative available, with a comfortable majority of 53%, and that was enough for a 2/3 majority in Parliament. On the evening of the election Viktor Orbán declared that “the people of Hungary executed a revolution in the voter’s booth.” He set to work within weeks to transform the entire system of government. It worked democratically before: checks and balances. But now, just as he described it previously, in a secret speech in the fall of 2009 to his confidantes, it would be a central “force field.” Eliminate the useless bickering, the bothersome tug of war between disparate interests and replace it with government by the will of a single force.

Before the opening of Parliament he personally received each member in his country house, where they, one by one, assured him of their personal loyalty and pledged cooperation. With one single exception this pledge has endured, their 2/3 of Parliament has flawlessly functioned as a voting machine.

With such legislative prowess it was a cinch to strangle the checks and balances. Some of them were just shut down. Others he replaced with new ones, or only their personnel were replaced with his own loyal followers. Usually placed there for nine-year terms, to carry out his policies, even if god forbid, he should lose an election in the future. After an unfavourable decision by the Constitutional Court, he diluted it, from nine to fifteen members, appointing his supporters, among them his personal lawyer, to prevent any similarly unpleasant decision in the future. And since he was working on the court already, he cut off most legal access to it and curtailed the court’s field of competence.

After these swift and efficient preparations he was ready to implement his “vision” even further!

The Orbán government, in a legislative fury, first issued the Manifesto of National Cooperation to be displayed in every public building. This document stipulates that the national reconciliation, peace and brotherly understanding will be accomplished if everyone just meekly follows the government. A new constitution was secretly prepared, without any consultation, and pressed through Parliament in three weeks, claiming that it was absolutely urgent and necessary, because the previous constitution (to which they all swore allegiance and promised to uphold) was a communist document.

Codified corruption
Concurrently, Orbán personally appointed as state dignitaries his college friends, reduced the number of ministries to eight, thus concentrating power in the most trusted hands. The speaker of the house and the president are his roommates from his college dorm. But there is a fourth college friend who is perhaps the richest man today in Hungary and who, from the beginning, has directed the financial dealings of the party and possibly Orbán himself, and is so obscure in the background that for more than twenty years has not been seen, or photographed: Lajos Simicska. The oligarch par excellence! This man owns the vast majority of billboards in Hungary, the largest advertizing agency, newspapers, TV and radio stations, the largest and most favoured civil engineering firm, and has the largest long-term lease, over 9000 acres of state-owned agricultural land. (While the legal limit is 300 acre per person and 1200 acres per family.) In 2013, his mind-bogglingly complicated company-network was awarded 14% of the entire public works and procurement budget of Hungary: 875 million forints (€2,916,700, or $3,946,418) every day, 39.6 billion forints (€128,721,432=$178,603,644) in total for the year.

All this, of course, was done secretly, through unknown channels and processes. So, it’s no wonder that some people claim that behind the mask of Orbán, it is actually Simicska who is running the country.

At the head of the eight ministries are Orbán’s most trusted people. That would be fine, if they were qualified. But in many cases they are not. Most ministries are covering unrelated responsibilities. For example, the Human Resources Ministry, which controls the greatest budget, has the responsibility for pensions, healthcare, education, employment, funding for the arts, Roma integration and so on. And who is the minister of this complex? He is Viktor Orbán’s spiritual adviser, the Rev. Zoltán Balogh, an ordained minster of the Reform Church, who has not the slightest previous experience in public administration.

Although the individual fields are supervised by undersecretaries whom, in many cases, are at least professionals. (Some of them are also graduates of the Simicska conglomerate.) While the Minister of Finance, interestingly, is an economist, the Minister of Development, in charge of all public works, is a bookkeeper, Mrs. Németh, who is also an alumna of the oft-mentioned oligarch, Mr. Simicska. Her educational attainment is a high school diploma. She hardly ever speaks publicly, or in Parliament. Her voice, (and her professional adviser as well), is Dr. János Fónagy, and with him we arrive at one of our basic subjects: the Jewish contribution. He is one of the two known, openly Jewish members of Parliament. Fully secular, very smart, a truly dedicated lawyer. Dedicated, that is, to upholding and operating the new, practically single-party system. But this savvy, seasoned lawyer was stunned, well-nigh speechless when, in November 2012, one of the openly anti-Semitic MPs demanded the listing of Jews in Parliament. All he could say was that his parents were Jewish, yes, but he had no choice, and no, he is not practicing.

Of course I became interested. One day two years ago I naively walked up to the entrance of Parliament asking to be admitted. They didn’t laugh, just sent me to this office and that, all for naught. In the US and Britain it is a matter of merely asking a representative for a free ticket and entrance to the legislature is assured. In France free entrance for all is outright spelled out in the Constitution. Now in Hungary one can buy a ticket for a guided tour of Europe’s largest parliament building, but visiting the sitting of the Assembly is tied to a special permit, a press accreditation, that must be renewed from week to week, and for me it took several months to obtain. Finally, months later, miraculously I was admitted at last. (The whole thing took only another twenty minutes of phone calls and checking.)

So, now that we are inside, let me introduce you first to Mr. Speaker, Viktor Orbán’s former college roommate, former communist party apparatchik with latent authoritarian inclinations, the intensely anti-communist Dr. Lászlo Kövér. His job is to restrict the House’s operation so that only Fidesz can have its way and to stifle the opposition. Speaker since August 2010, from his appointment on, he imposed control on proceedings. He cancelled all press credentials, then later, after readmitting them, he relegated all press to the loggia above the Speaker’s perch. This resulted in the prevention of photographing him and the person speaking on the rostrum from any angle, except from above and from behind. All rights to video are restricted exclusively to the official parliamentary broadcasting system; journalists are forbidden to make videos. This is not just idle talk, there are guards immediately interfering with any such attempt, if necessary, by putting their hand in front of any camera. The “official” video broadcast is strictly controlled in the government’s best interest and if the opposition should do anything untoward, or unexpected, the screen shows the speaker only, the sound is cut off and the public will never find out what actually happened. The public cannot come in and information cannot get out of there. Is it any wonder, therefore, that the public at large is completely ignorant of Parliament? One of Speaker Kövér’s golden rules is that immediate questions must be submitted in advance in writing, the MP must read them verbatim from paper and the Government’s answer is also read from paper. The whole charade of “immediacy” is a surrealistic farce.

Having sat in that press gallery for some time, I became increasingly frustrated by my failing hearing. I knew I was losing it, but this fast? After some days I realized though that I can hear Mr. Speaker perfectly well, only the rest is a muffled noise. I decided to “investigate.” Looking around the balcony I discovered that two loudspeakers on each end clearly convey Mr. Speaker’s voice from his microphone, but the connections to all other microphones are cut off and the disconnected loudspeakers and wires, as sad leftovers of corpora delicti, have been strewn under the chairs. I went immediately to the Press Office a few doors away. The head of the Press Office didn’t want to believe me. “Nobody has ever complained about such a thing before,” he said with conviction, (Yeah, I retorted, because nobody was interested in what is said in there,) then he put on his jacket and we dashed off to the press gallery to see it. I showed him around in his own domain, explained how the system worked, that is, how it actually didn’t work, showing the detritus beneath the chairs.

I still don’t know to this day, how sincere his astonishment was. We went back to his office and I asked what he intended to do about it. He promised to reconnect the speakers.

A week later, seeing that nothing happened, I went back to him, but another official told me that it was the end of the session, they are swamped, and this must wait until next session. That, of course, never came; soon an election was called for a new, reconstituted Parliament.

Speaker Kövér also called into being a special military unit, the Parliamentary Guard. These live tin soldiers are meant to impress the tourists, but even more, suggest the sinister muscle power at his exclusive personal disposal to apply force against unruly MPs. (The number of guards: 349, in the 2013 budget 2.3 billion forints €7,476,245=$10,373,444 and in 2014 an additional 30 are being hired.) The costume of the Guard is a combination of a little pre-war Royal Hungarian and a lot of German Wehrmacht elements and bears no resemblance to anything historical. But no matter, if Regent Admiral Horthy had such a guard, then Speaker Kövér, the son of a provincial metal worker, must have his too.

Legislating the coup
The Hungarian Parliament has dispatched a prodigious number of bills, produced at a scorching rate. In 2012 the government submitted and the House voted in 364 pieces of legislation. That’s right, one for every day, except Christmas day! So to speak. Regularly the government introduced legislation, several hundred pages long, on Friday evenings and got it read and voted in the following Monday. Amendments were proposed by obscure Fidesz backbenchers, often just half an hour before the final voting, and they passed, regardless of the opposition’s claims that there wasn’t even time to thumb through the papers. Voting was frequently timed to occur in the middle of the night, or later, to avoid possible public scrutiny. To my knowledge, in these four years not one single bill submitted was supported by any corroborating background papers. If ever made, they have been kept secret from Parliament, as well as from the public. Many of these laws are contrary to European Union rules, sometimes contrary even to their own new Fidesz constitution, but the European Union besides ruminating, producing damning reports and furling its collective brow, does nothing. The Machine works miracles.

One of those “miracles” was the new election law pushed through with the same dizzying speed and a mere few months before the election itself. It came out of the machine providing unprecedented advantages to the governing party, while making a win for the opposition nearly impossible. (As one of the opposition MPs noted, the field was not only tilted, it was actually vertical.) It reduced the members of Parliament almost by half and included rampant gerrymandering. Consequently, last month’s election, although free, was neither fair nor equitable. The rules were so skewed that even cheating was not necessary. Thanks to the carefully “calibrated” rules, with 44.87%, of the 61.24% voting, Fidesz won another electoral triumph. This represents a mere 27% of the eligible voters, yet again it was enough for a super-majority.

What system?
This election was a good example of how the Fidesz system works, its aims and its goals. All election-related spending was done to the benefit of Fidesz oligarchs, just like the public works are. The government boosted its success propaganda, often verbatim identical to that of the Fidesz party, the two inseparable; party money mingled with government money and they are indistinguishable. Billions have been paid to oligarchs. Then through unknown channels those oligarchs recycle the government monies into the party– and private coffers. Thus laundered, it buys more power and is rewarded by government largesse, contracts and fat jobs. There it yields new income for the oligarch and the cycle spins ad infinitum. This is the substance of the Orbán system of National Cooperation.

Sense and sensibility
In closing, let’s come back to the memorial, the start of this lengthy presentation.
When the Alliance of Hungarian Jewish Parishes, known as MAZSIHISZ, heard of this bizarre memorial, the normally cordial air between the government and them froze almost solid. Their newly elected board and new president, Mr. András Heisler, sent a memorandum to the government. They set three conditions to participate in the official year of remembrance, one of them being: this memorial project must be abandoned. Anti-Semites were crying foul immediately, talking about an ultimatum.

No sane person could accept the whitewashing of war crimes attempted by this “statue”: the murder of 600,000 Jews, the 160,000 casualties on the front, or the cruelties perpetrated by the Hungarian forces in Serbia and against the Ukrainians.

Grudgingly, Orbán, citing the impending election campaign, suggested adjournment and reconsideration until, after the election, consultations could be held in a calmer, more conducive climate. MAZSIHISZ quietly agreed but were stunned when two days after the election the construction work started without the promised consultations. So, they decided that the Jewish Community “en bloc” would disassociate itself from the official government memorial events. The Jews will remember in their own way, in their own time, and with their own money.

Thanks to his own obstinacy, Viktor Orbán has painted himself into a corner from which he can only come out with a major loss of face and, by the same token, forged a Jewish Community tightly united as never before, and to a degree never thought possible. This is the first time, in an unprecedented way, that the Jewish Community has taken it upon itself to proudly represent civic courage, the advocacy of reason, and the principles of democracy, in the name of all of Hungary, that hardly anyone else dares to do in the ever-deepening and darkening pit that Hungary is rapidly becoming in the middle of Europe, and do it right into the face of the government machine of Viktor Orbán.

—–

* This paper was presented at a workshop organized jointly by the Ben Gurion University and the Konrad Adenaur Stiftung. The topic of the workshop was “Jewish Contribution to the European Integration Project.”

Israel and the international Jewish community want deeds, not words

The controversy over the government’s plans for the Holocaust Memorial Year is not subsiding. It was a week ago that Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization representing about a dozen Jewish groups, said that they will boycott the project as long as the government insists on moving ahead with the current plans. Three issues were in contention. First, they disapproved of the appointment of Sándor Szakály, a right-wing military historian, as head of a new historical institute named Veritas. Second, they wanted to be consulted in connection with a new Holocaust Museum named the House of Fates and expressed some doubts about the suitability of Mária Schmidt as the overseer of the project. Finally, they violently objected to the monument to be erected as a memorial to the German “occupation” of Hungary on March 19, 1944. The monument depicts Hungary as an innocent victim of Germany, as a country that lost its sovereignty and was thus absolutely innocent in the murder of about half a million Hungarian Jews.

For a few hours people who are against the Orbán government’s attempts at falsifying history were ecstatic . They praised Mazsihisz’s courageous new leadership. But the next day the government made public a letter Viktor Orbán had received from Mazsihisz which created a huge storm within the Jewish community. It seems to me that the majority of people who publicly expressed their opinions believed that the top leaders of Mazsihisz had recanted on their earlier stance. Accusations of treachery could be heard.

What were the problems with the letter that made so many people unhappy? One was the style of the letter, which a lot of people found too servile. The repeated “Igen Tisztelt Miniszterelnök Úr” (Very much honored Mr. Prime Minister) was too much for those who think very little of Viktor Orbán. The other objection was the omission of Sándor Szakály’s name from the document. Did this mean that Mazsihisz was abandoning its insistence on the removal of the controversial historian who thinks so highly of the Hungarian gendarmerie, the ones primarily responsible for leading Jewish victims to boxcars to be shipped to Auschwitz? Some leading Jewish activists, like Tamás Suchman, formerly MSZP member of parliament, insisted on the resignation of András Heisler, Péter Tordai, and Gusztáv Zoltai who signed the letter.

I would most likely have been outnumbered with my own opinion that sending a letter, admittedly one less servile than the letter Mazsihisz sent to Orbán, was a good move. I talked about my feelings on the subject once already. The suggestion of establishing a House of Co-existence devoted to the symbiosis of Jewish and non-Jewish cultures in Hungary is a wonderful idea. I interpreted the absence of Szakály’s name in the letter as an indication that his appointment was not subject to negotiation; he had to go. As for the  monument, Mazsihisz asked that its very concept be revised. Their position was strengthened by the support of  the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’s Division of Philosophy and History which declared that the monument gives a false impression of the history of the German “occupation” and Hungary’s position vis-à-vis Germany between March and October 1944.

But this was not the only reason for public outcry. Ilan Mor, Israeli ambassador to Hungary, gave an interview to Heti Válasz, a right-wing weekly, on February 12. In this interview Mor announced that he “has no doubt about the good intentions of the government” and spoke critically of Mazsihisz. Unfortunately, the interview is not yet available in its entirety on the Internet, but Mazsihisz didn’t take too kindly to Mor’s remarks. Gusztáv Zoltai, one of the three who signed the letter to Orbán, responded that “although we think very highly of the Israeli ambassador, we are an independent religious community in Hungary. We have very good relations with the Israeli ambassador but he should not make declarations in our name. It is our job and we disagree with him.” Well, this is clear enough.

To c0mplicate matters, a day after Mor’s interview the Hungarian ambassador was summoned by the Israeli foreign ministry. The topic was rising anti-Semitism in Hungary, but Rafi Schutz, deputy-director-general for Europe, also brought up the Orbán government’s attempt to rehabilitate Miklós Horthy, “who was complicit in the mass deportations of Jews to Nazi death camps in 1944, which resulted in the deaths of around 450,000 Hungarian Jews.” The infamous monument didn’t escape the attention of the Israeli foreign ministry either: “Hungary’s whitewashing of history has included plans to build a massive monument commemorating the 1944 invasion of Hungary by the Nazis, which is seen as an attempt to portray Hungary as a victim rather than an active partner of the Nazis. … The recent trends of historical whitewashing raise concerns in Israel, particularly since Hungary decided to hold a series of events memorializing the Holocaust. While the Jewish state initially supported the decision, it now fears the trends throw such efforts into doubt as further attempts to rewrite history.” Rafi Schutz added that Hungary was chosen to chair the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) starting in March 2015, but doubts are now being raised “about Hungary’s ability to properly preserve the memory of the Holocaust.” Strong language.

Thus the Israeli government stood squarely behind Mazsihisz while Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, believing in the trustworthiness of the Hungarian government, criticized the organization for its stridency. I think Ilan Mor is too charitable to the government.

Yesterday Ronald S. Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, wrote an article that appeared on Népszabadság‘s op/ed page. Lauder is heavily involved in Hungarian affairs on account of his mother, Estee Lauder, who was born and brought up in a Hungarian Jewish household in the United States. Among other things, Lauder established the Lauder Javne School, a Jewish educational institution that houses a kindergarten, an elementary school, a gymnasium, and a conservatory. He was also involved in the project to build a resort complex with an attached casino at Lake Velence in Sukoró which was torpedoed by Viktor Orbán, then still in opposition.

deedsLauder’s article bears the title: “To unify, not to divide.” In it he announced that the decision of Mazsihisz is fully supported by the World Jewish Congress. He expressed his disappointment that instead of remembrance of the victims, the Hungarian government is trying to rewrite history. The year 2014 was an opportunity for Viktor Orbán to confirm his good intentions hitherto only expressed in words by deeds. László Kövér accused Hungarian Jewry of “standing by the left again.” The Holocaust for the Jewish people is not a question of left or right and the government must make sure that it is not.

According to Lauder, it is worrisome that the Hungarian government is sending out contradictory messages: it recognizes the country’s responsibility in the deportation of Jews on the one hand and, on the other, it wants to erect a memorial which is offensive to Jews. The picture that has emerged of Hungary in America, Europe, and Israel is completely negative.

Viktor Orbán remains silent.

The Hungarian Holocaust Year and the reaction of Jewish organizations

Let me start with a disclaimer. In a comment I gave details of the negotiations currently underway among the politicians of MSZP, Együtt-14, and DK. I should have been more circumspect because the information came from Heti Válasz. Although it is the least objectionable of the pro-government publications, that doesn’t mean that one ought to believe everything that appears in it. Heti Válasz claimed to know that MSZP will have 66 districts while E-14 and DK will have 20 districts each. The paper reported that the list will be headed by Attila Mesterházy to be followed by Gordon Bajnai, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and someone from PM. Well, it turns out that although the negotiations are proceeding well, the participants are far from a final agreement.

Berlin postcard 1938 issued to commemorate the meeting between Hitler and Horthy

Berlin postcard 1938, issued to commemorate the meeting between Hitler and Horthy

And now to today’s topic. As all active readers know, my post on the events of 1944 created an incredible number of comments. I wrote in response to the government’s idea of erecting a monument to Hungary’s “occupation” by German forces. My summary was largely based on the final chapter of Krisztián Ungváry’s latest book, The Balance Sheet of the Horthy Regime: Discrimination, Social Policy and anti-Semitism in Hungary, which in turn relies on the cumulative research of German, American, and Hungarian scholars. Since it is a very recent publication, Ungváry incorporated the latest findings about the circumstances of this so-called occupation, which surely can’t be called an occupation in the accepted meaning of the word. It, in fact, could better be described as a troop movement within the territories of military allies.

Since the beginning of the year the controversy swirling around the erection of such a monument has been steadily growing in Hungary and abroad. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that Krisztián Ungváry decided to voice his opinion on the subject. Some people thought that the announcement of the erection of a monument was a joke, and accordingly Ungváry starts his article with a witticism of General Maximilian von Weichs, the general of the German forces sent to Hungary in 1944. When he was asked about the time it will take to occupy the whole country Weichs answered: twenty-four hours. And if there is resistance? Weichs’ answer was: only twelve hours because in that case there will not be so many welcoming speeches from Hungarian officials. Weichs felt that his stay in Hungary was unnecessary. His soldiers had nothing to do, and he personally spent his time going to parties, wine tastings, and the opera.

Ungváry makes no bones about the Orbán government’s duplicitous public relations campaign when it comes to Hungary’s role in the Holocaust. On the one hand, Ministers Tibor Navracsics and János Martonyi can admit Hungary’s share of responsibility in the events of 1944, but this is a message intended for foreign consumption. At home the government, by erecting a memorial to the German “occupation,” refuses to acknowledge any share of the blame. Some of the pro-government “historians” go even further and claim that, with the active help of Miklós Horthy, “300,000 Hungarian Jews were hidden, fed, and saved in Budapest.”

I think the erection of a monument was the last straw even for Mazsihisz (Magyarországi Zsidó Hitközségek Szövetsége), which has been watching with growing suspicion the government’s efforts to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. Mazsihisz is an organization that represents only the Jewish religious communities, which is a very small group in comparison to those who consider themselves Jewish but have no religious affiliation. Mazsihisz also depends to a large degree on the goodwill of the Hungarian government, and therefore its leaders tread lightly. However, last year there was a shakeup in Mazsihisz, and it seems that the new leadership is taking a more activist role in defense of Jewish interests.

In charge of both the new House of Fates and the memorial is János Lázár. Lázár instructed Antal Rogán, mayor of District V where the memorial will stand, to make the necessary arrangements for a “building permit.” The new president of Mazsihisz, András Heisler, wrote a letter to Rogán in which he expressed his misgivings about the project. The letter interpreted the erection of such a monument as a “grievous and sad message” which worries both the Hungarian and the international Jewry. The letter specifically asked the authorities to abandon the idea of such a monument.

Heisler is afraid that if the monument actually materializes there will be “an international scandal” which he would like to prevent. Mazsihisz also has problems with the House of Fates. At the beginning of December they wrote a letter to Mária Schmidt in which they listed the names of twenty experts whose presence would ensure the historical accuracy of the planned exhibit. They asked her to pick five. Now, more than a month later, there is still no word from Schmidt. Moreover, Heisler knows nothing more about the monument than he did when he read news of it on January 1. In brief, all the plans for the Holocaust year are proceeding without any input whatsoever from the official Hungarian Jewish organizations. A few days ago Mazsihisz decided to write to János Lázár himself. As yet they have received no answer from him either.

So, this is where we stand. I agree with András Heisler. The falsification of history is proceeding apace on all fronts, but the Holocaust is an especially sensitive subject as far as the Orbán government is concerned. On the one hand, the government wants to look like a responsible trustee of the memory of close to 500,000 victims and therefore organizes a whole series of events commemorating the Holocaust’s 70th anniversary. At the same time it is busily rehabilitating the same Miklós Horthy who bore a major responsibility for the fate of those Jews deported to Germany. The monument to the German “occupation” is especially egregious. With its erection, the present government would be giving material form to its sanitized history of the country, in particular the absolution of Hungarian governments of the interwar period and the Hungarian authorities of seventy years ago of any responsibility for the fate of Hungarian Jews. It is a shame, and I hope that the Orbán government will abandon the whole idea.