Today I will share Paul A. Shapiro’s introductory remarks of February 26, 2014 at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Ambassador György Szapáry organized an event to mark the publication of The Holocaust in Hungary: Evolution of a Genocide, the latest in a series called “Documenting Life and Destruction” published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The book is authored by Hungarian Holocaust scholars László Csősz, Zoltán Vági, and Gábor Kádár. They belong the younger generation of historians dealing with the subject of the Hungarian Holocaust. Gábor Kádár wrote several books together with Zoltán Vági, one of which was translated into English: Self-Financing Genocide: The Gold Train–The Becher Case–The Wealth of Jews, Hungary. In Hungarian, one of their important contributions is Hullarablás–A magyar zsidók gazdasági megsemmisítése and their latest, A végső döntés: Berlin, Budapest, Birkenau 1944. László Csősz is an associate of the Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center and is interested in the anti-Jewish laws and their economic consequences.
Paul Shapiro is the director for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. This is not the first time his name has appeared in Hungarian Spectrum. A year ago I published his testimony on the growing anti-Semitism in Hungary before the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This time his remarks were delivered before a small gathering in the Hungarian Embassy, and I thought they deserved a larger audience.
But first I would like to say a few words about the standoff between the Hungarian government and Mazsihisz (Magyarországi Zsidó Hitközségek Szövetsége/The Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities). As you know, Viktor Orbán postponed the erection of the controversial statue that would have depicted Hungary as an innocent victim of German aggression and thus innocent of the Hungarian Holocaust.
Since then not much has happened except that ever more local religious communities are refusing to accept money from the Hungarian government for events connected with the memorial year. Among them is one of the more important synagogues in Budapest, on Leó Frankel Street. Apparently it is well attended by mostly young and highly educated people. A statement was released by the Frankel Synagogue Foundation a couple of weeks ago:
Outside of Hungary’s borders the Cluj/Kolozsvár Jewish community also raised its voice in protest. Before 1944 Kolozsvár was a large Jewish center whose members were Hungarian speaking. In 1927 the 13.4% of Kolozsvár’s population was Jewish. They will have their memorial events which will be attended by people from all over the world but they will make do with funds from other sources. I’m sure that financial help will come from many who live outside of Romania.
Paul Shapiro–Introductory Remarks
The Holocaust in Hungary: Evolution of a Genocide
Embassy of Hungary
February 26, 2014
Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. I want to express appreciation to my friend Ambassador Szapary and the Hungarian Embassy for organizing this program and for hosting us here this evening.
Having been asked to say a few words of introduction, I would like to offer some comments regarding the book that we will hear about this evening, and then share a few words about why we feel this book is important, and why it is particularly important at this particular moment, during a year that marks the 70th anniversary of the deportation by Hungarian government and police authorities, acting in cooperation with a small band of Adolf Eichmann’s men and with the knowledge and assent of Regent Miklós Horthy, of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to their deaths at Auschwitz-Birkenau; during a year that marks the 70th anniversary of the crude crimes and murders perpetrated during the Arrow Cross (Nyilas) regime, which cost the lives of additional thousands of Jews; and during a 70th anniversary year that will be followed by Hungary’s assumption of the Chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
First, about the book.
Many of you know that one of the mandates that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum received at its founding from the Congress of the United States is to assemble at the Museum archival collections that will enable scholars and educators to undertake serious research and to teach about the Holocaust based on the authentic historical record as reflected in original documentation from the years of the Holocaust itself. Our archives contain tens of millions of documents collected from some 40 countries worldwide, including Hungary.
Most of this documentation, of course, is not in English. And again in response to our Congressional mandate, “to educate about the Holocaust,” one of the projects we have undertaken in recent years, through a publication series that we call “Documenting Life and Destruction,” is to make available to English-speaking audiences worldwide authentic documentation of the Holocaust in English translation, so that it can be studied and used in teaching. The Holocaust in Hungary: Evolution of a Genocide is the newest volume in that publication series.
What is special about this particular volume. The content of the volume, of course, is powerful—a story of mass murder that took place when it was already clear that Hungary and her Axis allies would lose the war. The Holocaust in Hungary is the story of one of every 10 Jews murdered during the Holocaust, and the book reveals through the original documents that it presents to the reader, the prejudices, anti-Semitism among cultural and other societal elites, political calculations and decisions, and absence of compassion that produced that horrible death toll of innocent victims. Also special, all three of the authors of this important volume are young Hungarian scholars, each a Ph.D. and exceptionally well trained. All three have been visiting fellows at our Museum, having succeeded, on the basis of the quality of their work, in winning fellowships through the very rigorous international competition that we organize each year. Two of the authors were on the four-person design team of experts that created the extraordinary and historically accurate permanent exhibition at the Holocaust Memorial Center on Pava Street in Budapest a decade ago; and the third author, László Cősz, is currently the Senior Historian at that very special Hungarian institution. So we know that the volume is of high quality. That Randolph Braham, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York and one of the rare survivors of the Hungarian Jewish Labor Service, has provided a foreword to the book further adds to its authority. Thus, this book, on its merits, deserves special attention, and again, I want to thank the Embassy for this opportunity to present it.
Now, why do I stress the importance of this book at this particular moment? The answer lies not in our archives, not at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at our Museum, and not in Washington, … but in Hungary.
Last year, the Hungarian Government announced an extensive set of programs and projects that it intended to sponsor during this 70th anniversary year of the tragic, murderous 1944 events to which I have already made reference. Some of the projects were controversial, and were perceived to suggest a continuation of disturbing trends that might result in distortion of the true history of the Holocaust. But the Government promised consultation, inclusion, and transparency, and solicited advice and recommendations, even from my own institution. Some of our recommendations were included in my testimony before a Congressional Committee nearly a year ago, and thanks to the assistance of Ambassador Szapáry, we were able to share our thoughts in person and in writing with officials of high state authority in Budapest. I won’t repeat the content of my testimony, but I will say that we still feel that our recommendations had merit, and that it is unfortunate that not one of them has been embraced by the Government of Hungary. But that is not the crux of the matter. As I say, it is not what happens in Washington that is important in this story, but what is happening in Hungary.
Regrettably, recent developments surrounding three of the government’s 70th anniversary projects have raised doubts about whether true consultation and transparency exists—that is, consultation and open discussion in which serious objections and carefully argued suggestions might be taken seriously. You all know the three issues: 1) the offensive and history-cleansing remarks made by Sándor Szakály, director of the newly created Veritas History Institute, which appeared to whitewash actions of the Horthy government that resulted in the deportation from Hungary of 18,000 Jews in 1941 and the murder of most of them; 2) the rush to create and display an “alternate history” of the Holocaust, without the guidance and input of leading Holocaust scholars and the Hungarian Jewish community, at a new museum, the so-called “House of Fates,” being installed at the Jázsefváros rail station on the outskirts of Budapest, rather than strengthening the city’s existing Holocaust Memorial Center; and, most recently, the planned German occupation monument, which, by making it appear that Hungary was an innocent victim, most observers consider will lead to a downplaying of “the active contribution of the Hungarian authorities” and “the Hungarian state’s central role in the mass deportations of 1944.” (See AFP, “US Scholar Returns Hungary Award over Whitewash, January 26, 2014; and New York Times, “Holocaust Scholar Returns Top Award to Hungary in Protest,” January 27, 2014).
Professor Braham, whose expertise is uniquely respected around the world, sees a “campaign of history falsification.” A group of researchers and historians from within and outside Hungary have issued an open statement of concern (dated January 28, the full text is available on Amerikai Magyar Népszava, February 2, 2014). Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice in Budapest, has issued a statement calling for an end to “mixed messages” and objecting to an occupation monument approach that promotes “utter amnesia regarding the role of the Hungarian government in the worst atrocities of that tragic occupation.” (Lantos Foundation Statement, February 3, 2014). Clearly, these prominent personalities are signaling a serious crisis of confidence in the Holocaust Memorial Year.
But the most revealing and grave indication that a change of course is necessary has been the reaction of the country’s still vibrant, though of course much smaller, Jewish community. Without recounting the entire sequence of events, it is sufficient to say here that a significant number of Jewish organizations, including some of the most important—MAZSIHISZ, that is, The Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, The Dohány Synagogue Foundation, The Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association, regional Jewish community associations, and others—after seeking to consult with the government and seeing their concerns and suggestions rejected, have announced that they will no longer participate in Holocaust Memorial Year events. Institutions and individuals that had received grants from the government’s Holocaust Memorial Year fund have returned the grant monies in order to emphasize their objections. (Some non-Jewish associations have done the same.) When one considers that many of these organizations receive their core funding from the state budget, it is difficult to overstate the courage they have shown by speaking out, and it is impossible to fail to understand the depth of concern that has generated their protest.
It would be difficult to characterize the government’s response thus far as forthcoming. Minister of State János Lázár, who is managing the Holocaust Memorial Year agenda, has accused MAZSIHISZ of “sabotage,” of issuing “ultimatums,” and of thus putting at risk long-term “Jewish-Hungarian coexistence.” To a community commemorating the 70th anniversary of the murder of over three quarters of its members, such language must sound chilling indeed. Construction of the German occupation monument has been delayed … temporarily, but up to now there is no sign that other corrective steps are being taken. I did note, however, that after Minister of State Lázár met with a round table of Jewish community representatives on February 6, he stated that without the support of the Jewish communities, the “House of Fates” project “would be meaningless,” and he stated that “it is important to unravel the events of 1944, in order to clearly determine responsibility” (Government of Hungary Press Release, February 6, 2014). As my friend Ambassador Szapáry knows from our conversations, I am an eternal optimist. If Mr. Lázár’s statements indicate a willingness to consult in earnest, I would urge the Hungarian government to heed MAZSIHISZ’s call for significant investment to dramatically strengthen the programs and capabilities of Holocaust Memorial Center as Hungary’s principal institution for Holocaust education, school visits, and research. And in light of the potential for distortion and misunderstanding of the history of the Holocaust in Hungary that has raised so much concern, I would encourage the government to consider again the possible establishment of a high-level international commission of scholars to prepare for the government, on the basis of authentic archival documentation, a report to be made public that will “unravel,” to borrow the Minister of State’s word, in an unequivocal and authoritative manner, the historical questions to which Mr. Lázár has referred and other Holocaust-related issues where the history can be clarified.
Seventy years ago, the state leadership of Hungary—Regent Miklós Horthy and his government ministers, in particular—failed to listen to the repeated desire for inclusion and, later, the urgent pleas for help in extremis that came from Hungary’s Jewish community. What the country’s Jewish citizens got, instead, was anti-Semitic legislation; exclusion from the protection of the state; deportation and death at Kamenetz Podolski; murder in Újvidék; gassing at Auschwitz-Birkenau; death marches; and, under Szálasi, fanatical killings on the streets and on the banks of the Danube in Budapest during the final months of the war. For Horthy, Szálasi, and others who held leading positions in Hungary at the time—as for Adolf Eichmann and his group of SS-men—this record has left a stain on their legacy that must be confronted honestly and that will never be wiped clean, however much all who care deeply about Hungary might wish the situation to be otherwise. Historical fact is historical fact, and neither wishing, nor lobbying, nor wilful or even unintended manipulation can change that.
Today, once again, the Jewish community of Hungary is seeking real inclusion, real consultation, and is pleading for today’s more modern, better educated, democratically elected state leadership, to listen to their legitimate concerns and to be responsive regarding appropriate commemoration of the Holocaust; preservation in a dignified way of the memory of the majority of the Jewish community that was lost forever; and commitment to teaching Hungary’s young people the historical truth, without distortion, obfuscation, or the presentation of more convenient or more comforting “alternate facts.” As in Horthy’s time, the long-term legacy of today’s national leadership vis-à-vis the tragedy of the Holocaust, will depend on the Hungarian government’s response.
The book of László Csősz, Zoltán Vági, and Gábor Kádár demonstrates that the truth regarding many issues that have been deemed “controversial” is knowable and documentable. We are hopeful that this book may provide a starting point for corrective action that will alter the trajectory of events in Hungary that I have described. Our Museum stands ready, as we have stated repeatedly, to contribute in ways that we can to serious remedial efforts. We will continue during this anniversary year to promote and present well-documented scholarly work on the Holocaust in Hungary. There will be a full-day symposium on this subject at the Museum on March 19. I hope that you will attend.
With thanks again to Ambassador Szapáry for his indulgence, let me now turn the floor over to Dr. László Csősz.