MAZSIHISZ

Mária Schmidt’s latest opus: The love story

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Imre Kertész

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sorsok haza projekt

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

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

INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE

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

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

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

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

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

MAZSIHISZ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gusztáv Zoltai, the boss of Mazsihisz

Gusztáv Zoltai as boss of Mazsihisz

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

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

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

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

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

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

Federation of Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz) versus Mária Schmidt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The House of Fates under construction

The House of Fates under construction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sándor Kerekes: Hungarian democracy in a nutshell*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

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

Viktor Orbán shapes the Holocaust Memorial Year

While Viktor Orbán was composing his letter, described by the philosopher Ágnes Heller as the handiwork of Moliére’s Tartuffe, the pious fraud who managed to fool his benefactor and his wife with his pretensions of divine authority, the Orbán regime’s political machine continued preparing the ground for its own version of the Holocaust Memorial Year, for the most part unadulterated by Jewish input.

Today I’ll focus on two events: (1) the agreement of cooperation between the Veritas Institute and the Holocaust Documentation and Memorial Center and (2) the meeting between members of the government and representatives of Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization for several Jewish communities. As I already noted a few days ago, the Veritas Historical Institute, directed by Sándor Szakály, and the Holocaust Documentation and Memorial Center, represented by György Haraszti, chairman of the board, signed an agreement of cooperation. Leaders of Mazsihisz and other Jewish organizations were stunned. Szakály and Haraszti have already agreed on some conferences that will be jointly sponsored by the two institutions.

The first conference will deal with the period between the German and Russian “occupations.” A sidenote: The word used in connection with the arrival of the Soviet troops is a matter of controversy of an ideological nature. There is no question that for the remaining Jewish population of Hungary the Soviet arrival was a “liberation” (felszabadulás), and therefore the Holocaust Center’s acquiescence in using the word “occupation” (megszállás) is unfortunate. Although admittedly most non-Jewish Hungarians feared the arrival of the Soviet troops, calling the event a foreign occupation is simplistic. It does, however, jibe with the Hungarian constitution’s (and Orbán’s) view of Hungary’s lost independence. The Germans took it away in 1944, and after the war the Allies that defeated Hitler’s Germany (which, after all, included the Soviet Union) continued to deny Hungary its independence. Hungary was a powerless, and hence innocent, nation; all the power, and all the responsibility, lay in the hands of its occupiers.

Monument of the March for Life, Budapest / Work of Zénó Kelemen

Monument of the March for Life, Budapest / Work of Zénó Kelemen

Now back to the controversial agreement between the Veritas Institute and the Holocaust Center. Historian Szabolcs Szita, the temporary director of the Holocaust Center, knew nothing about the negotiations between Haraszti and Szakály. Szita was named director three years ago and his appointment is coming to an end on May 3. No one knows who his successor will be. One thing is sure: he wasn’t encouraged to reapply. György Haraszti, on the other hand, obviously has very good relations with the Orbán government. He was named chairman of the board shortly after the election of 2010. He is also a professor at the Országos Rabbiképző–Zsidó Egyetem, the rabbinical school and Jewish university that is under the supervision of Mazsihisz.

As a result of his agreement with the Horthy-loving Szakály, a man Mazsihisz demanded the government replace with a more reputable historian, Haraszti was asked to leave all his positions at the rabbinical school at the end of the current academic year. I’m not worried about his future, however. The Orbán government takes good care of its own. As for topic two, at the request of Viktor Orbán a meeting with the leaders of Mazsihisz was arranged for April 30th, the same day Orbán released his letter to Katalin Dávid. The government was represented by Viktor Orbán, János Lázár, and Zoltán Balog. Mazsihisz sent its president, András Heisler; Péter Tordai, the president of the Budapest Jewish Community (BZSH); and Péter Kardos, chief rabbi of Hungary and a Holocaust survivor.

The meeting was described as a long and “frank” discussion. We all know what “frank” means in this context: the discussion was less than pleasant and it led practically nowhere. As far as the monument is concerned, it is not negotiable because Viktor Orbán “has no room to maneuver.” He cannot give up the original concept. This is very strange reasoning. Who is forcing him to erect the monument? Surely, nobody. What he might have had in mind was that because of his stubbornness he maneuvered himself into a corner from which he cannot extricate himself without losing face.

Some people might argue that Orbán feels so strongly about the issue that scrapping the monument and the idea behind it would shake the very foundations of his worldview. I doubt it. He is anything but a man of firm beliefs. He belongs to the church of “what works now.” The only promise the leaders of the Mazsihisz delegation received was that in establishing the House of Fates “they together will make a last attempt to create a system of cooperation that will ensure the true depiction of history in accordance with Hungarian Jewish perspectives.”

In certain circles this agreement was hailed as a sign of Viktor Orbán’s willingness to compromise. I am not that optimistic. I fear that the gulf between the two views is so great that it cannot be bridged. I will be most surprised if talks between government representatives and supporters, such as Mária Schmidt and György Haraszti, and Mazsihisz, supported by most historians of the Holocaust, can possibly arrive at a common ground.

Szakály’s appointment, according to Mazsihisz’s brief description of the meeting, was not on the agenda. On the other hand, the Mazsihisz leaders offered some preliminary plans for a “House of Coexistence” which Mazsihisz suggested as an alternative to the House of Fates. Again, I have the feeling that this is a dead issue. As is clear from the agenda of the conversation, the creation of the House of Fates is going ahead. A House of Coexistence would be another establishment costing additional money. I doubt that Viktor Orbán is in the mood to give such a gift to Mazsihisz and the Jewish communities it represents. Especially not after Jewish communities supported the two-week-long demonstration against his “accurate and flawless” monument.

The Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Year: One step forward, two steps backward

It was exactly a week ago that I wrote about the Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Year, which is still very much a topic of debate in Hungary. The core of the problem is the effort on the part of the Orbán government to rewrite the modern history of Hungary.

The problem started with the adoption of a new constitution that has a fairly lengthy preamble in which  the emphasis is on the concept of “nation.” The preamble is actually called “national avowal” and its first sentence reads “we, the members of the Hungarian nation.” For the sake of comparison the United States Constitution refers to the “people of the United States” and the modern constitution of Germany to “the German people.” As we will see a little later, this preoccupation with the idea of “nation” may have far-reaching consequences as far as the current controversy is concerned.

At the time of the release of the text of the preamble to the new Hungarian constitution a lot of legal scholars, historians, and commentators severely criticized it for being a hodgepodge of disconnected, unhistorical nonsense. But what must be an absolutely unique feature of this preamble is that the framers decided to eliminate 46 years, 2 months, and 5 days from Hungary’s history because the decision was made to “date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944, from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected organ of popular representation was formed. We shall consider this date to be the beginning of our country’s new democracy and constitutional order.” In plain language, Hungarians are not responsible for anything that happened during this “lost” period. It was immediately noted that the first Hungarian transports headed for Auschwitz and other death camps occurred after March 19, 1944. A lot of people suspected that this government was thinking of shifting the entire responsibility for the Holocaust on the Germans who, with the permission of Miklós Horthy, moved their troops into Hungary. Regardless of how often officials of the current Hungarian government repeat that they accept responsibility for the Holocaust, the new constitution claims otherwise. And that is the basic law of the land at the moment.

Sorry about these repetitive prefatory remarks, but in order to fully understand the thinking of Viktor Orbán, János Lázár, and other high officials of the government we must keep in mind the emphasis both on the “Hungarian nation” and on the alleged lack of sovereignty of Hungary. Giving up the idea of erecting a monument that depicts Hungary as the innocent and long-suffering Archangel Gabriel would go against the very core of this view of history. And when we find more and more references to “Hungarians and Jews” in government parlance, we must also keep in mind the nation-centric views that found their way into the new constitution. I maintain that as long as this constitution is in force there can be no meaningful discussion between Viktor Orbán and those who don’t subscribe to this warped view of history. Viktor Orbán may suggest to the leadership of Mazsihisz that “the dialogue should be continued after the Easter holidays,” but there can be no common ground between the two views.

Still, one ought to appreciate the fact that he made the gesture at all. Viktor Orbán rarely retreats. As his critics say, “he goes all the way to the wall.” It seems that this time he bumped into that wall, a wall of condemnation by a civilized Europe that doesn’t take Holocaust denial lightly. Let me quote here from a speech Ilan Mor, Israeli Ambassador to Hungary, delivered at the gathering to honor the recipients of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations awards. He said that “any attempts to rewrite or to reinterpret the history of the Shoa, in this country or elsewhere, for any reason, politically and/or ideologically, are part of the deplorable attempt to deny the Holocaust, the Shoa.” This is the kind of criticism the Hungarian government is facing when it tries to falsify history.

Just when we thought that, at least until April, we could have a little respite and prepare ourselves for the next round, János Lázár decided to upset the apple cart. He happened to be in Gyula, a city near the Romanian border, when he gave an interview to the local television station. During the interview the reporter asked him about Mazsihisz’s opposition to the government’s plans for the Holocaust Memorial Year. Lázár lashed out at the leaders of Mazsihisz, accusing them of wrecking the government’s plans for the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust. He charged them with fomenting discord between Hungarians and Jews who have lived in unity and symbiosis for centuries. According to him, the story of that common past was a real success. He predicted that Mazsihisz’s “ultimatum” will have a negative influence on the cohabitation of Jews and Hungarians. He added that he hopes “the local Jewish communities in conjunction with the officials of the municipalities will find a way to remember together.” Lázár expressed his belief “in the wisdom of the local Jewish leaders and even more so in the wisdom of the municipal leaders,” and he said he hoped that “this ultimatum was only part of a political move that will not be able to fracture that unity and symbiosis in which we have lived together with our Jewish compatriots in Gyula or for that matter in Hódmezővásárhely,” his hometown where he served as mayor until recently.

"Cohabitiation: Minority and majority in the Carpathian Basin Source: Amerikai Nepszava Online

“Cohabitation: Minority and majority in the Carpathian Basin”
Source: Amerikai Népszava Online

It was at this point that all hell broke loose and for good reason. First of all, Mazsihisz didn’t issue an ultimatum. Second, Lázár practically accused Mazsihisz of fomenting anti-Semitism in Hungary by not meekly accepting the falsification of history promulgated by the Orbán government. Third, it was especially tasteless to talk about Jewish/non-Jewish symbiosis and cohabitation in a provincial town. As is well known, there are practically no Jews left in Hungary outside of Budapest. The vast majority perished because Miklós Horthy wanted to start the deportations with those whom he considered to be the great unwashed. And fourth, what caused real furor was that Lázár excluded Hungarians of Jewish origin from the Hungarian nation. Commentators noted that this view comes straight from the Nuremberg laws and the anti-Jewish laws of Hungary. People are truly outraged.

Commentators are trying to figure out what motivated János Lázár to make a frontal attack on Mazsihisz. Some think that he was just careless and didn’t weigh his words. Perhaps in a more formal setting, they claim, he wouldn’t have said what he did. Others think that he is just outright stupid and/or crass.

I see it differently. Lázár is the messenger boy of Viktor Orbán. It is enough to recall the meeting between him and members of different Jewish communities. The participants were hoping for some solution to the impasse. It turned out that Lázár had no authority whatsoever to talk about anything substantive. He could only tell those present that he would relay the points they made to Viktor Orbán, who would answer them in writing. Therefore, I suspect that Lázár, when questioned in Gyula, simply repeated what he knew to be Viktor Orbán’s position. And I don’t think that I’m too far off when I predict that Viktor Orbán will not be any more malleable after Easter. Lázár’s words are only a forewarning of what lies ahead.

——

P.S. I would like to correct an earlier mistake of mine. I attributed a statement to Ambassador Mor that turned out to be erroneous. In his interview with Heti Válasz he did not speak critically of Mazsihisz as I assumed.

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.