Lake Velence

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 Orbán family’s enrichment with a little government help

Today I read an editorial in Magyar Nemzet on the fate of Silvio Berlusconi.  It seems that Anna Szabó, the author, who is a great admirer of Viktor Orbán, forgot that the Hungarian prime minister is a friend of Berlusconi. Because she found Berlusconi’s sentence far too lenient and expressed her utter astonishment that the Italians, although they have long known about Berlusconi’s “dirty affairs,” only now were ready to punish him for his sins.

In the final paragraph of the editorial Szabó bemoans the fact that in Hungary many corruption cases have gone unpunished, pointing the finger at Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gordon Bajnai. She lists among their sins the fate of the Posta Bank, MSZMP’s former retreat in Balatonőszöd, the Budapest Airport, and “stealing parts of Lake Velence’s shores.” In case you draw a blank, it was at Lake Velence that the Israeli businessman Joav Blum and his American partners who included  Ronald S. Lauder hoped to build a luxury hotel and a casino.

If I were Anna Szabó I wouldn’t mention these cases right now because practically all the accusations she hurls at the former prime ministers are without foundation. On the other hand, in recent days Hungarian newspapers have been full of descriptions of certain business activities of members of the Orbán family that are suspect.

I am not an overly suspicious person. In fact, I can even be called naive when it comes to questionable business deals. On the one hand, I’m inept in business matters and, on the other, since I’m not in the habit of cheating or stealing from others I find it very difficult to imagine people whose daily activities include such shady activities.

I have encountered people over the last twenty years who have floated fanciful stories about Fidesz and the “boys.” I know a woman who to this day is convinced that a group of MSZMP leaders allowed the formation of Bibó College, the dormitory where Fidesz was born, in order to develop “trustworthy cadres” who would eventually be entrusted with salvaging the Kádár regime’s essential features. Well, I think this is madness.

On the other hand, I take much more seriously the persistent allegations that seem to be well founded about the money Fidesz got from the sale of the building the party received from the Hungarian state in 1992. Here only one thing is not entirely clear. How much of the 750,000 million (in 1992!!!) remained in the party coffers and how much disappeared into private pockets. We know only that László Kövér didn’t allow top party officials to take notes while Viktor Orbán tried to explain the distribution of the money among various Fidesz companies. But Klára Ungár, who was by that time highly suspicious of the activities of Lajos Simicska, László Kövér, and Viktor Orbán, tried to keep the figures in her head. She found that at least 170 million was missing from the total. We also don’t know what happened to the rest of the money that was invested in several companies that were eventually liquidated under very suspicious circumstances.

It is also another fairly well established fact that some of the money went to help Viktor Orbán’s father, Győző, purchase the state quarry he ran before the change of regime. It was this quarry in the village of Gánt that established the Orbán family’s fortune. Since then Győző Orbán has been able to add various enterprises to his original business and has become very rich indeed. According to Krisztina Ferenczi’s calculation, two of the businesses in which the older Orbán has a majority share (the quarry in Gánt and a company that produces peat) netted 2,192 billion forints last year. In addition to these two companies, there is another one that is owned exclusively by Viktor Orbán’s father and his two young brothers. That company was also profitable, bringing in an additional 400 million.

The Orbán Quarry in Gánt

The Orbán Quarry in Gánt

Győző Orbán also owns land in Felcsút adjacent to a parcel of land owned by Viktor Orbán. The VIP parking area of the Aranycsapat Stadium will be located on this piece of land. (Aranycsapat means Golden Team, the nickname of the Hungarian team that became world famous in the mid-1950s and on which Ferenc Puskás played before he left Hungary after the 1956 Hungarian revolution.)

The prime minister’s father also purchased part of the former estate of Archduke József of Habsburg. The summer palace of the Hungarian Habsburg family was destroyed during the war and the 7,000 acres that went with it was distributed among the local landless peasants. Only the manor house and 13 hectares were retained by the Hungarian state. Perhaps we shouldn’t be terribly surprised that both the manor house and the 13 acres ended up in Győző Orbán’s hands. As far as I know, the manor house is under renovation. Rumor has it that it is being converted into a luxury hotel.

And then there is the Orbán family’s controversial peat business. The first mention I found of the marshlands that are necessary for peat production was in the March 5 issue of HVG. Bernadette Szél (LMP) discovered that Fidesz was preparing a bill that would lift the protection of marshlands and allow the mining of peat.  By July it became public knowledge that the prime minister’s father and two brothers already owned about 200 acres of marshland in the County of Zala. Győző Orbán purchased the land in 1999 during the premiership of his son. The head of the Mining Authority was for a while a silent partner in this peat business. They and others purchased the land for practically nothing. In 2003 the area was declared to be protected, destined to be converted into a national park. All of the landowners were forced to sell their land to the state, with the exception of the Orbáns.

Bernadette Szél went to look at this land, which consists of several thousands of contiguous hectares of marshland. The Orbáns’ 200 acres that presumably were so different from all the others lie in the middle of this large area. It seems that the Orbán company will have a peat mining monopoly in these parts. At the moment the company, in addition to mining, is building a helicopter pad. Business is good. In 2012 there was half a billion forint profit.

And, as people say, “if we just knew the whole truth.” I think we would be astonished at the depth of corruption of the man who is currently the prime minister of Hungary.