Mária Schmidt

Viktor Orbán finally sent an answer, but the Jewish community’s boycott is still on

The deadline had long passed and Viktor Orbán’s promised answer to Mazsihisz’s three demands to ensure their participation in the events of the Holocaust Memorial Year still hadn’t arrived. So, it’s no wonder that Népszabadság headlined one of its articles “Orbán is ruminating.” And indeed, I don’t think that it was easy for a man who is not accustomed to retreating to admit that, despite all the power he acquired within the country, he might have to back down on the idea of erecting a monument to the German “occupation” of Hungary on March 19, 1944.

On February 16, in his “state of the nation” speech, he was still adamant and denounced those who “dare to tell us what we should or should not do, or what and how we should remember.” Commentators were convinced that Orbán would stand fast and wouldn’t give an inch.

There were other signs, however, that those harsh words were only for show. Zoltán Balog told ATV on Tuesday that the topic will most likely be “discussed” on Wednesday at the cabinet meeting. Mind you, we know from an earlier Balog interview that “discussing” something at the cabinet meeting means that all those present simply lend their support to Viktor Orbán’s decision. Still, he wasn’t the only one who indicated that the infamous memorial might not be in place on Szabadság tér on March 19. István Pálffy (KDNP) also suggested that it would be impossible to erect the structure given time constraints. Presumably they knew something even before the cabinet meeting.

Although word about the postponement became official only last night, the well-informed Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság already knew about the decision a few minutes after the cabinet meeting. Her sources indicated that there was intense international pressure on the government, including German disapproval. Israel also made its feelings known by requesting the newly appointed Hungarian ambassador to have a heart to heart with officials of the Israeli foreign ministry.

After the decision was reached, Orbán wrote his long-awaited letter to the leaders of Mazsihisz. In it he mentioned, as Fidesz politicians always do, that the Holocaust Center was established during the first Orbán government and that it was during his first term that they declared April 16 to be the day devoted to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. On the other hand, he completely ignored the controversy surrounding the Holocaust Memorial Year: the falsification of historical facts symbolized by the planned monument, the appointment of a far-right historian to a newly established institution called Veritas who considers the Kaments-Podolskii deportations and murders of mostly Hungarian Jews a simple “police procedure,” and the concept and the person in charge of the planned House of Fates. Instead, Orbán claimed that the reason for postponing the erection of the “Gabriel” statue is the campaign season for national and EU elections that takes place between February 15 and May 25.

The contents of this letter didn’t make the slightest difference as far as the leaders of Mazsihisz were concerned. They announced that there is nothing in this letter that would necessitate calling together the entire leadership which decided on the boycott in the first place. This is only a postponement of the statue, with no mention made of the two controversial historians, Sándor Szakály of Veritas and Mária Schmidt of the House of Fates.

Gordon Bajnai agreed with the Jewish leaders. He called the postponement of the erection of the monument no more than a “cynical avoidance of conflicts before the election” which does not address the core problem: “Falsification of history still remains falsification of history two or three months later.”

Two fundamentally opposing historical views are clashing here, and in my opinion truth is not on the Orbán government’s side even if they decided to name their new historical institute Veritas. I want to make one thing clear. It is not only the Jewish community that cannot accept the Orbán government’s efforts to rehabilitate the Horthy regime. More enlightened members of Hungarian society, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are only too aware of the respective Hungarian governments’ roles between 1920 and 1944 that resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews and non-Jews.

Some people are not surprised that in the last twenty-five years perhaps the majority of Hungarians refused to look critically at their own past. After all, they say, it is a painful process, and it took at least that many years for the Germans to do the same. So far so good, but the difference is that now, twenty-five years after the regime change, instead of turning the corner and facing harsh facts, the Orbán government is doing everything in its power to prevent the kind of dialogue that might result in a fair assessment of Hungary’s twentieth-century history. In fact, it is undoing the fairly sophisticated re-examination of the past that already began to take place in the second half of the Kádár regime. Admittedly, publications on the Holocaust and in general on Jewish affairs are much more numerous today than in the 1970s and 1980, but I still have some very valuable books from those days in my own library.

Finally, I would like to talk briefly about two issues. Today Ilan Mor, Israeli ambassador to Hungary, and Sándor Pintér, minister of interior, gave out decorations to those who saved Jewish lives at their own peril during the Holocaust. Ambassador Mor bestowed the Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations awards to the children or grandchildren of ten Hungarians. Alongside the Israeli awards, Sándor Pintér gave out decorations “For Bravery.” I didn’t find a lot of information on this bravery award except that it is given to firefighters. Even a German Shepherd dog received it not so long ago.

Mihály and Szabolcs Fekete-Nagy at the award ceremony

Mihály and Szabolcs Fekete-Nagy at the award ceremony

One of the awardees was Béla Fekete Nagy (1904-1983), a well-known painter, whose two sons were at the ceremony to receive their father’s posthumous award. Mihály and Szabolcs  Fekete-Nagy accepted the Yad Vashem award but would not accept the “For Bravery” decoration from Sándor Pintér. Mihály delivered a speech which the cameramen muffled, but the message was that they would defile the memory of their father if they accepted the decoration from the minister of interior of the Orbán government.

I also just learned that in the last four or five months the government allegedly stopped all subsidies to the Holocaust Memorial Center with the result that this month the Center cannot even pay the meager salaries to its employees. This stoppage of funds might be a bureaucratic mix-up, but given the present tense relations between the government and the Jewish community it might be more than that. Perhaps the goal is to put pressure on the Holocaust Center to convince Mazsihisz to be less rigid and make a deal with the Orbán government. Or there might be another explanation. As we have learned, the Orbán government had rather strong objections to the leadership and concept of the Center. Since, as Mizsihisz argued, two Holocaust centers in one city are not really necessary and since this administration came forth with the idea of the House of Fates, it might want to marginalize or eliminate the Holocaust Memorial Center. I’m just guessing, but whatever the reason it most likely reflects the Orbán government’s two-faced attitude toward the Hungarian Jewish community.

Hungarian parliament voted on Paks; the Jewish-government dialogue is stalled

Yesterday we all thought that the parliamentary vote on the Russian-Hungarian agreement about financing and building two new reactors in Paks would take place only next Thursday. But, in typical Fidesz fashion, the Fidesz-KDNP majority made a last-minute change in the agenda and opted to hold the vote today. Perhaps the sudden decision had something to do with the revelations of Mihály Varga, minister of the economy, about the financial details of the agreement. Parliament had only four days to ponder the bill, and five hours were allowed for discussion on the floor.

The decision to move the vote forward naturally upset the opposition, but that was not all that raised eyebrows. The figures Mihály Varga revealed were much higher than earlier expected. First of all, Hungary will have to pay back the loan not in 30 but in 21 years, in 2035. In the early years the interest rate will be 3.9%, later 4.5%, and in the final years 4.9%. The Russians will pay the 10 billion euros it is lending to Hungary over ten years, and Hungary will have to pony up 2 billion euros in the final years of plant construction. (That figure, of course, assumes that there are no cost overruns, a highly unlikely possibility.) According to information received from government circles, one reason Viktor Orbán was so eager to push through the vote at the earliest possible date was that he was concerned that even Fidesz legislators would be unwilling to vote for the plant expansion once they knew its true cost. This information had to be revealed because the court so decided. Moreover, according to estimates, the expansion of nuclear capacity would be so costly that it would raise the price of electricity at least 40% and in the first decade perhaps 80%. Népszabadság gave the following headline to its article on the estimates prepared by MVM, the state-owned utility company: “More expensive electricity, brutal losses.” Nice prospects, if MVM’s calculations are correct.

LMP asked for a roll call vote, after which András Schiffer held up a sign: “Hungary sold out and indebted,” while Szilvia Lengyel, also of LMP, held up another placard proclaiming that “We will not be a Russian atomic colony.” Bernadett Szél (LMP) and Katalin Ertsey (LMP) had megaphones that produced the noise of ambulance sirens at full volume. The scene was quite something. I highly recommend the video of the brawl, available on Index. Parliament had to adjourn for over an hour. László Kövér called the protesters idiots and also indicated that the highest possible fine will have to be paid by the four LMP members.

LMP (Politics Can Be Different) / Source Index

LMP (Politics Can Be Different) / Source Index

A quick look at the record of the votes is most interesting. It is striking how many members chose not to be present. Let’s start with Fidesz which has a large 223-member delegation out of which 21 members were absent. Among the missing were Viktor Orbán, Zoltán Balog, Mihály Varga, Tibor Navracsics, and Zoltán Illés and Zsolt Németh, undersecretary for foreign affairs.. Out of the KDNP caucus of 34 members only two were missing but one of them was no other than Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister. Half of the Jobbik members were absent, but those present with the exception of one voted with the government parties. The majority of MSZP members decided to stay at home (32 out of 48). Out of the 27 independents 17 were absent and only one of those present voted for the bill: József Balogh of blind komondor fame.

The other important news of the day was the scheduled meeting between Jewish leaders and János Lázár. If anyone had great hopes for a compromise between the government and the Jewish community, he was mistaken. It turned out that János Lázár was simply a messenger. As he himself admitted, everything depends on Viktor Orbán. His is the final word and at the moment that word is “no go.” The monument will be erected, Sándor Szakály will stay, and the House of Fates “can become a reality only if there is intelligent, correct dialogue that concentrates on the essence of the matter… If there is no cooperation there is no reason to go ahead with the project.” So, if you raise objections and want to oversee Mária Schmidt’s activities, there will be no new Holocaust center in Hungary.

As for the monument depicting Archangel Gabriel and the German imperial eagle, “it would be a falsification of history if we pretended as if Germany didn’t deprive Hungary of its sovereignty on March 19, 1944.” The problem is that most respectable historians dispute the government’s contention of a lack of sovereignty, pointing to the composition of the governments formed between March 19 and October 15, 1944. For example, all ministers and undersecretaries of the Sztójay government also served in earlier Hungarian ministries going back as far as 1933. It is also clear that Miklós Horthy was not entirely powerless, as he demonstrated several times during this period. In my opinion, given the seemingly firm position of the government, there can be no agreement between the two sides.

I very much doubt that Viktor Orbán, who will have the final say on the issue next week, will move an inch. He is not that kind of a guy. As for the Jewish organizations that will sit down to talk on Sunday, they are unlikely to retreat from their position. So, it can easily happen that an international scandal is in the offing: the Hungarian Jewish community will boycott the Holocaust Memorial Year initiated by the Orbán government.

The last straw: Either true depiction of the Hungarian Holocaust or Jewish boycott

The fallout from Sándor Szakály’s outrageous comments on the Kamenets-Podolskii mass murder of deportees delivered to German-occupied Ukraine is intensifying in Hungary. Instead of calling it what it was, the first atrocity in the Hungarian Holocaust, Szakály called it “a police action against aliens.” It seems that this was the last straw for Mazsihisz, the organization that represents non-Orthodox Jewish religious communities.

An exceptionally strongly worded statement appeared on Mazsihisz’s website this morning. Here is a translation of this very important document. We must keep in mind that in the past Mazsihisz was relatively inactive and avoided serious confrontations with the Hungarian government. The fact that such a statement was released by Mazsihisz shows how strained relations between the Orbán government and the Jewish communities have become in the last four years.

* * *

MAZSIHISZ DEMANDS THE RESIGNATION OF SÁNDOR SZAKÁLY

The leadership of Mazsihisz is aghast and finds incomprehensible the relativization of the Holocaust by the “Veritas” Institute established by the Hungarian government. The director of the “Veritas” Institute, Sándor Szakály, called the deportation of Kamenets-Podolskii, the first mass murder of the Hungarian Holocaust, “a police action against aliens.” After the failure of his past efforts at falsifying history, we expect him to resign from his position.

The leadership of Mazsihisz calls on all politicians to refrain from using the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust as an element in the electoral campaign and asks all concerned to refrain from rewriting our past. If the government of Hungary is serious about facing the true history of the Holocaust,  it should immediately put an end to the disrespectful behavior that is ruinous for the credibility of the memorial year of 2014.

Because of the lack of information about the ideology of the new Holocaust Center at Józsefváros, because of what transpired at the Horthy Conference at the House of Terror, because of the falsification of history in the series “Lifesaving Stories” on Magyar Rádió, because of the erection of the [German occupation] memorial on Szabadság tér, and because of the statements of the director of the “Veritas” Institute, Mazsihisz is seriously contemplating refraining from participation in the events of the Holocaust Year. Moreover, we will make use of the grant we received from the Civil Grant Fund only if there is a change in the direction of the whole project.

We call everybody’s attention to the words of Sándor Márai: “We cannot excuse, we cannot explain what happened, but we can admit it and can tell it.  This will be the duty of this generation.”

* * *

András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz

András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz

Since then Szakály was invited by Antónia Mészáros of ATV for a chat on her program. He started out on a high horse and tried to prove the correctness of his interpretation by reading passages from Randolph L. Braham’s work on the Hungarian Holocaust. Naturally, since the appearance of that monumental work several books and articles have appeared on the subject. Szakály is either unfamiliar with this research or purposely ignored it. By the end of the conversation, however, he was less sure of his views and admitted that perhaps he was wrong. But that is not a political issue, he claimed, but differences of opinion within the profession. Initially he categorically announced that he has no intention of resigning, but by the end he was quite contrite. Obviously he realized the precariousness of his situation.

Mazsihisz’s quasi ultimatum pushes Viktor Orbán into a corner. He either has to sack Szakály, force Mária Schmidt to allow a dialogue with the Jewish community concerning the new Holocaust Center, and give up the idea of erecting a monument to the German occupation which is an important part of the myth he wants to create about the innocence of Hungarians in the Holocaust, or he loses the support of the Hungarian and international Jewry which he seems to find very important. Perhaps he thinks that key members of the American Jewish community will rush to his aid and convince the American government that the current Hungarian government is democratic and especially sensitive when it comes to anti-Semitism. I doubt, however, that such an intervention on Viktor Orbán’s behalf, even if it materialized, could counterbalance, for example, Orbán’s “strategic alliance” with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

We will see what will happen. One thing is sure: the leadership of Mazsihisz is not exaggerating. A wholesale falsification of history has been under way for some time. On all fronts and not just the Holocaust. Lately, for instance, MTV launched a series on the late 1980s and the regime change. The job was given to someone who is not qualified, and the first two segments were apparently crawling with factual errors. And, of course, with revisionist history. On Duna TV there is another questionable historical series called “Heritage.” Put it this way, the number of programs dealing with history is far too high and therefore highly suspicious. One wishes that politicians would leave history alone. We would all be much better off.

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.

 

“House of Fates”: What does it mean?

For a number of years I have been bothered by the English translation of Imre Kertész’s Nobel Prize winning book, Fatelessness. There is no such word in English as “fateless” or “fatelessness.” Mind you, before Kertész’s novel appeared in 1975 there was no such word in Hungarian either. I decided to take a look at the German translation and  “fatelessness” reappeared there too: “Roman eines Schicksallosen,” says the German title page. At this point I had to turn to Duden: “not marked by a certain fate in a special way.” I must say that it didn’t help me a lot.

The Hungarian word “sors” (fate), just as its English equivalent, has several meanings. Perhaps the English word “lot” is the closest to the core meaning of the Hungarian “sors.” A man can say at the end of his life: this is what my life was all about, this is what I achieved, this was my lot. That’s what he got from life, this is how things worked out, this is what happened to him over the years. But surely, what happens to the hero of the novel is not fate in the normal sense of the word unless a person believes in some divine predestination. What happened to the fifteen-year-old György Köves was something unexpected and inexplicable. He was removed from his surroundings, deprived of his freedom and will. By being dragged away and taken to Buchenwald, he was removed from a very different lot that was until then taken for granted by him and his family. It was a break in his life. In fact, Kertész is quite explicit about this: “It wasn’t my lot but it was I who lived through it.” (my translation)

fate

Interestingly enough, no one to my knowledge spent much time on the meaning of the word “sorstalanság” (fatelessness), the title of the original Hungarian book. But now that the Orbán government decided to erect a new memorial to the children who were victims of the Holocaust the meaning of the word has come up and become a topic of controversy. The people entrusted with the establishment of this memorial decided to name it the House of Fates (Sorsok Háza). It will be located in the old, by now unused, railroad station of Josephstadt (Józsefváros). I wrote about the hurried decision to renovate the old station and make it suitable for a museum. As soon as the public found out that the exhibit will bear the name “House of Fates” there were objections. They pointed out that it wasn’t fate that was responsible for the destruction of the Hungarian Jewry but people who ordered the deportation, and the same was true of the 200,000 Hungarians who took an active part in this atrocity.

It is clear that the name of the new museum was inspired by Imre Kertész’s book, but the people who decided to choose it most likely didn’t understand Kertész’s meaning. Sors/sorstalan (Fate/fateless; Schicksal/Schicksallos) are opposites, but if you don’t understand the meaning of the title of the novel then it is certain that you will err when picking its opposite. And hence the controversy that followed the announcement. György C. Kálmán, a literary historian, argues that labeling the murder of children as “their lot” is to make it sound normal and natural. It shows insensitivity and crassness. It is all wrong.

Péter György, a literary critic, argues along similar lines. If someone is deprived of his freedom to change his fate he is no longer the master of his own life. This is what Kertész calls “sorstalanság.” An exhibit, says György, that focuses on the years that led to the Holocaust cannot be labeled something that inevitably led to these children’s fate. To follow one’s fate means free will, and no one can say that these children willingly chose death as their fate.

Kálmán and György talk about the unfortunate name of the new museum. Others have different and perhaps more weighty objections. First of all, there is great suspicion about Mária Schmidt’s involvement in the project due to her rather peculiar interpretation of the war years and the Holocaust. Schmidt is obviously trying to show her openness by approaching Hungarian Jewish intellectuals asking for their help. We don’t know how many people got letters and what they answered. But we do know that György Konrád, the well-known Hungarian writer, received one. Moreover, we also know what he had to say to her since Konrád made his answer public.

Dear Mária,

I find it difficult to free myself of the suspicion that this hurried organization of an exhibit is not so much about the 100,000 murdered Jewish children but rather about the current Hungarian government. If this government spends such a large amount of money in memory of these children, I would suggest that this amount be spent instead on the feeding of starving Hungarian children who live today.

If you would like to have my personal contribution to the enlightenment of Hungarian school children, please suggest my autobiographical book, Elutazás és hazatérés (Going Away and Returning/in the official English edition A Guest in My Own Country: A Hungarian Life), in which I describe my experiences as an eleven-year-old in historical context.

I read this book for Magyar Rádió and it was broadcast several times. The book is still available and therefore the teachers can easily obtain it.

Sincerely yours,

György Konrád

A few days later Mazsihisz (Magyarországi Zsidó Hitközségek Szövetsége), the association of Jewish religious communities, also expressed its misgivings about the project. Apparently, Mazsihisz as well as other people who were supposed to have some say in the project still don’t have any idea about Schmidt’s plans. András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, did write to Schmidt. In his letter he emphasized the necessity of an exhibit that shows the road to the Holocaust as opposed to including only events that took place after the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. As of December 20, there was still no answer from Schmidt. However, in her letter to those intellectuals whom she approached she mentioned “an opportunity for everybody to attend the meeting to express their opinions, give advice and suggestions in four or five minutes.” No wonder that Konrád said no to this kind invitation. In any case, Mazsihisz would like to have public control over the conception, the realization, and the finances of the exhibit.

Finally, József Schweitzer, retired chief rabbi of Hungary, also expressed his serious reservations. He wrote a letter to Schmidt, a copy of which was sent to Népszava. He objected to the venue because this particular “railway station was not connected to the mass deportations of the Hungarian Jewry.” He suggested the renovation of the synagogue on Rumbach Sebestyén utca which is in very bad shape and its use for the memorial exhibit. Schweitzer also thought that the renovation of this synagogue would cost a great deal less, and he joined Konrád in suggesting that the rest be given to children who live in poverty.

I’m afraid that the House of Fates will be as controversial if not even more so after it opens its doors sometime in April of next year. Schmidt and the government she represents 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.

The Orbán government and the international Jewish community

Today’s topics are seemingly unrelated: the lobbying activities of Tamás Fellegi in Washington and the Orbán government’s proposal to establish another Holocaust Memorial in Budapest.

On November 8, in my piece on the new American ambassador to Budapest, I mentioned Fellegi’s lobbying efforts. I also gave a link to the article by Lili Bayer of politics.hu that detailed his activities. For those who didn’t read her article, here’s the upshot. Fellegi is the Hungarian government’s chief lobbyist in the United States who simultaneously heads a U.S. foundation which claims that its leadership is independent of the Hungarian government. The complicated setup of three different organizations is most likely designed to get around U.S. tax laws regarding the nonprofit status of  an organization funded by a foreign government. In order to understand this complicated story, one really ought to go to Bayer’s article.

Here, however, I would like to concentrate on something else, the targets of Fellegi’s lobbying activities. According to the document filed with the U.S. Justice Department, Fellegi’s lobbying  activities include building and developing contacts in “Congress, the Executive Branch, think tanks, the investment community, the Jewish community, and the Hungarian-American community.” What struck many of us was the inclusion on this list of “the Jewish community.” What does the Orbán government hope to achieve by trying to influence U.S. Jewish organizations and individuals?

And that leads me to the latest government effort to influence the international Jewish community, perhaps even Israel, by demonstrating its commitment to bringing into the open the atrocities the Hungarian Jewish community suffered in the past. And naturally, to show that the current Hungarian government is doing everything in its power to curb anti-Semitism, a constant topic in the foreign media.

I don’t think they can fool ordinary Hungarian citizens of Jewish ancestry, but they might succeed when it comes to the official Hungarian Jewish organizations. Perhaps they can even impress the state of Israel. And obviously the Orbán government decided to target the American Jewish community. Fellegi as a lobbyist was an excellent choice because he is a Jew, and he makes sure that everybody in the American Jewish community is aware of that fact. I might add that another member of the group, Gábor Róna, is also Jewish. He was once secretary of the Council of Europe’s program against racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. The third person is Péter Heltai, who is not Jewish; he was reported to have been an informant for the Romanian Securitate.

So, let’s move back to Budapest where a mega-project is underway. Out of the blue, with unusual speed and a lot of money the Hungarian government doesn’t have, the decision was made to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust with a new museum. Spearheading the “Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Council 2014” is János Lázár. And overseeing the project is Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror where only one room out of dozens is devoted to the Hungarian Holocaust and its 400-500,000 victims as opposed to the few thousand victims of the Hungarian communist period. Moreover, Schmidt has rather odd ideas on Hitler, the war, and the Final Solution. Here are a couple of examples: “We stayed on the side of Nazi Germany in order to defend the Hungarian Jewry.” Or, “It was Germany that forced the 1938-1939 anti-Jewish laws on Hungary.” Both are false.

The site of the new museum will be an old, abandoned sideline railroad station in Józsefváros (Josefstadt), the notorious VIII. district, that badly needs refurbishing. It will be called the “Sorsok háza,” which most Hungarians understand to mean “House of Fate.” The word “sors” also appears in the title of Imre Kertész’s Nobel Prize-winning book: Sortalanság/Fateless. Some naturally objected to Lázár’s choice of Mária Schmidt. My distinct impression, having heard her talk about her ideas for the project on György Bolgár’s program, was that Schmidt will try her best to inflate the number of Hungarians who risked their own lives helping their Jewish compatriots.

The future site of a new Holocaust memorial devoted only to child victims / Józsefváros Railway Station

The future site of a new Holocaust memorial devoted to child victims
Józsefváros Railway Station

Others objected to the name of the museum, saying that it wasn’t fate that destined these people to be transported to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Rather, it was the decision of the Hungarian authorities who were eager to rid the country of its Jewish citizens. Still others couldn’t figure out why this particular station was picked as the site of the future museum since almost no transports left for Auschwitz from it.

I should mention that in order to justify creating another Holocaust Museum instead of giving more generous support to the existing one this new museum will be specifically devoted to the children who were victims of the Holocaust. Lázár explained the choice this way. “We chose the ‘child Holocaust’ as the theme because we were trying to find a point which cannot be relativized: no explanation, no answer can be accepted when it comes to the murder of a child.” As if the murder of adults can be relativized or explained. Some people commented that if Lázár had made such a statement in another country he would have had to turn in his resignation.

It’s an open question whether it is at all possible to finish the project by April–this date is no coincidence, since that’s when the election most likely will take place. But the members of the advisory board have already been chosen: Anne Applebaum (journalist), Annette Lantos (widow of Tom Lantos), Chava Baruch (Yad Vashem), Gabriel Gorodetsky (Oxford), György Haraszti (historian, Hungarian Jewish University), András Heisler (Mazsihisz), Joshua Muravchik (Johns Hopkins), Michael Wolffsohn (Universität der Bundeswehr), Rabbi Andrew Baker (American Jewish Committee), Mária Schmidt (House of Terror), János Szász (film director), and Yehudit Shendar (Yad Vasem). According to András Heisler of Mazsihisz, some of the members expressed sharp criticisms. He didn’t elaborate.

It is unlikely that these people can have much influence on the whole process. After all, there are only four and a half months before the planned opening. As you can see from the picture, the station is in very bad shape. Moreover, the inhabitants of the 23 service apartments within the building must be evacuated and provided with comparable or better apartments. All that takes time. Restoring the building will cost 6.6 billion forints, and then there are still the expenses involved in transforming it into a functioning museum. As a point of comparison, the Hungarian government gives only 240 million forints a year to the Holocaust Memorial Center on Páva utca.

I don’t know why the government is establishing a new museum and why in such a hurry. I don’t know why the Orbán government is lobbying American Jewish organizations. All I can say is that it never acts without a good, self-interested reason. Perhaps in time that reason will become more transparent.

Gyula Horn’s reminiscences of his role in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

I indicated in one of my comments to the discussion on Gyula Horn that I would touch on his controversial role after the failure of the Hungarian Uprising of  1956 when for five or six months he served in the militia that was set up to keep order.

But first I would like to call attention to an obituary written by the director of the House of Terror and a friend of Viktor Orbán, Mária Schmidt. It is a most positive assessment of of Gyula Horn’s career. Schmidt thinks that Horn was a great statesman and a patriot “who did what the homeland asked him to do.” Most of us are familiar with Mária Schmidt’s political views. She is a fierce anti-communist. If I wrote something that glowing about Horn I would be called a Bolshevik by some of the right-wing readers of this blog. I highly recommend that they read her words.

In addition to Horn’s autobiography I discovered in my library a book, Here we are, Europe!, that is “a portrait of Gyula Horn.” It was published in 1990 with an introduction by Hans-Dietrich Genscher. In it I found a Hungarian translation of a very long article by Georg Paul Hefty from the February 1990 issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which is as eulogistic as the obituary of Schmidt. I might also mention that  Hefty is a true conservative who to this day is a fierce supporter of Viktor Orbán.

Before I move on to Horn’s controversial role in 1956, I think I should say something about his family background. Horn’s father joined the Red Army in 1919 and spent four years in jail after the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic.  He got married shortly thereafter and sired one child after the other. As Horn says, one every three years.  Altogether Horn’s mother gave birth to eight boys, out of whom seven survived. The family lived in extreme poverty.

Throughout the interwar years Horn’s father was in and out of jail although he didn’t seem to have especially close relations with the illegal communist party. Perhaps he just had a big  mouth. After the German occupation of Hungary (March 19, 1944), he was taken prisoner and killed near Sopron. Horn’s oldest brother Géza lost his eyesight in one eye as a teenager because two policemen beat him so brutally, apparently for no good reason. As Horn remembers, the two policemen didn’t like “prolis,” an abbreviation of “proletarians” and a derogatory term. He himself was beaten badly by a traffic cop because, while carrying two or three boxes for delivery, he wasn’t crossing the street fast enough.

Géza Horn joined the illegal communist party early on. It was he who served as a kind of teacher to Gyula, supplying him with Marxist-Leninist literature. After the war, during the coalition period, the Hungarian Communist Party immediately began recruiting adherents and party workers and the Horn family, given their association with the party even before 1945, was much favored.

The mother was sent to party school while Géza and Gyula were sent to a quickie course that gave them a high school diploma in one year. Both of them were then sent to university in the Soviet Union. Gyula studied finance and received a “red diploma” for earning straight As.

After returning to Hungary he got a job at the ministry of finance. His job involved checking VAT payments, which meant a lot of traveling all over the country. He saw the misery the Rákosi regime had inflicted on the country and the Hungarian people. He also sensed the growing dissatisfaction of the populace. Even his oldest brother Géza, who was truly committed to the cause, kept saying “this is not what we were fighting for.”

On the day the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 broke out Horn happened to be in Szeged. He had a rather hard time getting back to Óbuda where his wife was in the late stages of pregnancy with their first child. A sidenote, just to give you an idea of the fluidity of the political situation during the revolution, one of Horn’s younger brothers joined the revolutionaries and eventually became one of those 200,000 refugees who fled and settled in the West.

Horn himself was a member of the National Guard created by the Imre Nagy government. He patrolled the streets with an ID in hand bearing the signature of General Béla Király. I read somewhere that Horn and some of his friends briefly contemplated leaving the country. They even had a truck ready for the journey.

On the other hand, Géza, though not totally satisfied with the Rákosi regime, kept worrying about the future of the socialist state. After the failure of the revolution he helped organize the new communist party, Kádár’s MSZMP.

The Hungarian militia / mult-kor.hu

 Hungarian militia men / mult-kor.hu

Once it was all over, on December 12, Horn and six of his colleagues in the ministry of finance–among them all those who had studied in the Soviet Union–were asked to join a new battalion that was set up by the Budapest Police Captaincy. They were supposed to guard the bridges across the Danube because there were rumors that the revolutionaries wanted to blow them up.

The next day a terrible tragedy befell the Horn family. Géza, by then a film director and always Gyula’s favorite brother, was bicycling to work when a truck purposely struck him and he was subsequently beaten to death. They never found the perpetrators.

After about a month of guarding bridges at night Horn’s team was given a new job. The police recreated the “R Group,” originally used after 1945 to check the growing lawlessness during the very hard times. Horn and his colleagues were sent to this group not so much to apprehend criminals as to act as guards at pubs, railroad stations, and other public places.

Eventually, however, they ended up in investigative work. It turned out that one of these investigations also included beating the suspects.  Horn and his best friend in this group tried to intervene, but they were accused of betraying the cause. Soon enough came an investigation of the case by a high-ranking police officer.  Horn allegedly told him that “we didn’t sign up for this kind of work.” The police officer promised an investigation, but as Horn laconically remarks, “it is not known what happened to the promise, but it is a fact that we were no longer ordered to take part in this type of work.” He was demobilized in July 1957.

In the 1990 publication he told the reporter, Sára Pogány, whose interviews make up the bulk of the slim volume, that “we never used force against anyone.” When Pogány asked him whether he had any appetite for revenge, Horn categorically denied it. One can believe him or not. Mária Schmidt rightly points out that during the Kádár regime it was in his best interest to exaggerate his role in 1956-57 while after 1989 it was in his best interest to belittle it. But, as she notes, we don’t have historical evidence one way or the other. It is possible that Gyula Horn wasn’t important enough to leave behind much of a footprint. So, for the time being we will have to be satisfied with what he himself told us.