Auschwitz-Birkenau

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.

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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.

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Dissonant government voices on the Hungarian Holocaust

The Orbán government’s efforts to falsify history are proceeding full steam ahead. The “madness”–as Imre Mécs, one of the heroes of 1956, called it–continues. It looks as if Viktor Orbán refuses to listen to reason and insists on erecting a monument that depicts suffering Hungary as Archangel Gabriel at the mercy of the German imperial eagle. The originally stated purpose of the statue was to commemorate the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. After the first outburst of indignation, the monument’s rationale was changed to a commemoration of the victims, both Jewish and non-Jewish, of German aggression. There is only one problem with the whole concept. Hungary was an ally of Germany, and it was a legitimate Hungarian government that handled the deportation of about 600,000 Hungarian citizens of Jewish heritage. Not without reason, critics of the whole idea of the monument suspect that the Orbán government wants to shake off any responsibility for the Holocaust and to shift the blame entirely to Germany.

The protest around the foundation being built for the future monument has been going on for two weeks. Today about twenty people were removed and taken to police headquarters. The two best known demonstrators who were taken away are Imre Mécs, a former member of parliament who was sentenced to death as a result of his participation in the 1956 revolution, and his wife Fruzsina Magyar, a well-known dramaturgist.

It seems unlikely that the “madness” will end any time soon. Not only will the memorial stand but Sándor Szakály, a historian with far-right political views, will remain the director of the newly created historical institute,”Veritas.” As far I as can see, this new institute will be the government’s vehicle for a revisionist interpretation of modern Hungarian history. And we can only expect more historical madness. Just wait until young historians affected by the extremist ideology of Jobbik begin writing their own revisionist interpretations of historical events.

Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of Jewish groups, objected to Szakály’s appointment, but considering that Sándor Szakály just signed a document ensuring long-term cooperation between the Veritas Institute and the Holocaust Documentation and Memorial Center, we can be sure that Szakály’s appointment is secure. How could it happen, one might ask, that the Holocaust Documentation Center would ever sign such a document? The answer is simple. One of the first acts of the Orbán government was a personnel change at the head of the Holocaust Documentation and Memorial Center. The old appointees were fired and the new guard arrived. At that point it was clear that the Orbán government had plans for the Center. Since the Memorial Center is financially dependent on the government, Viktor Orbán thinks he has every right to run the place the way he likes. In his world there is no such thing as an independent foundation. So, while Mazsihisz stands against Szakály’s appointment, the Orbán-appointed head of the Holocaust Memorial Center, György Haraszti, signs an agreement of long-term cooperation with the head of Veritas. On the face of it, it might seem that Orbán managed to split the Jewish community, but my feeling is that most Hungarian Jews applaud Mazsihisz and have a rather low opinion of the new head of the Holocaust Memorial Center.

Last Sunday’s March for Life, a yearly gathering in remembrance of the Holocaust, was the largest ever, definitely more than 30,000 people. The crowd filled the streets between the Danube and the Eastern Station. Quite a distance. The government was represented by President János Áder, who then joined the International March for Life on a pilgrimage to Auschwitz. This year the Hungarians led the procession from Auschwitz to Birkenau because of the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust.

The Hungarian group in Auschwitz-Birkenau

The Hungarian group in Auschwitz-Birkenau

Áder made a speech there that was welcomed by all those who are critical of the Hungarian government’s attitude toward the Holocaust. Áder emphasized that the Hungarian state didn’t resist “the diabolical plan of the German occupiers”; in fact, it became its enablers. He called Auschwitz “the largest Hungarian cemetery.” He went as far as to say that “in order to understand the tragedy of 1944 we will have to take a look at ourselves.”  He added that there is no “forgiveness when a state turns against its own citizens.”

János Áder in Auschwitz-Birkenau / MTI

János Áder in Auschwitz-Birkenau / MTI

These are very strong words. The strongest I have ever heard from a member of the Orbán government. I can’t quite decide how to interpret them. I have the feeling that this was Áder’s first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I understand that the place makes an incredible impression on visitors. Perhaps the president changed his speech in the last minute to place greater emphasis on Hungary’s guilt than he had originally planned. Perhaps he was simply saying what he thought the pilgrims expected to hear. Perhaps he really does believe that the Hungarian government was complicit. In any case, Áder’s admission of Hungarian guilt stands in stark contrast to what Viktor Orbán, László Kövér, and Zoltán Balog think of Hungary’s anti-Semitic past. Áder didn’t look for excuses, he didn’t try to bury uncomfortable truths. Was this an example of what we call the good cop, bad cop syndrome or was it genuine? I don’t know whether we will ever be able to answer this question properly given the tight-lipped Fidesz leaders.

As for whether the Germans were true occupiers or not, here is an amusing story. A few days ago neo-Nazi groups also decided to demonstrate on Szabadág tér. Great was the panic among the anti-monument demonstrators. They were afraid of physical attacks by these skin heads. To their surprise it turned out that, just like the Budapest liberals, the neo-Nazis came to demonstrate against the monument. Why? Because, as they explained, the Germans did not occupy Hungary. How could they? Hungarians and Germans were comrades-in-arms who fought together against Bolshevism. No comment.