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hungary’s “whitewash” memorial to the holocaust

In Hungary 2014 has been declared Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Year, and the Hungarian Ambassador to the United Nations spoke in January about the importance of Holocaust education, but international historians are concerned about the way that Hungarian responsibility for atrocities during the Nazi era is being denied by the Hungarian government. 

A new memorial commemorating the March 1944 invasion of Hungary by the Nazis will be erected in Freedom Square in Budapest but has been condemned by international scholars, Jewish community leaders and Hungarian survivors of the Holocaust. Sculptor Peter Parkanyi Raab’s memorial depicts Germany’s imperial eagle swooping down on the archangel Gabriel, who symbolizes Hungary. It is described by Prime Minister Viktor Orban as “dedicated to the victims of the German occupation”.

In response to this memorial, Hungarian Holocaust survivor and historian Randolph L. Braham is returning a high state award to Hungary to protest what he says are government efforts to rewrite history and exonerate the country from its role in the Holocaust. Braham is Professor Emeritus at the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and his book “The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary” is considered one of the most important books about the subject. Braham has also asked the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest to remove his name from the information center which collects his research results and publications.

Braham said he was “stunned” by the “history-cleansing campaign of the past few years calculated to whitewash the historical record of the Horthy era.” Miklos Horthy was Hungary’s autocratic leader from the 1920s through most of World War II. Braham describes the memorial as “a cowardly attempt to detract attention from the Horthy regime’s involvement in the destruction of the Jews and to homogenize the Holocaust with the ‘suffering’ of the Hungarians — a German occupation, as the record clearly shows, was not only unopposed but generally applauded.”

In 2011, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel returned a state award to Hungary on similar grounds. Besides protesting the participation of top Hungarian officials at a ceremony honoring a famous writer who was also a Nazi sympathizer, Wiesel said at the time that he was rejecting the award also because “Horthy, who sent 500,000 Jews to Auschwitz in 1944, is becoming a heroic figure again in his country.”

As part of the Holocaust Remembrance Events at United Nations Headquarters in New York in January 2014, H.E. Mr. Csaba Korosi, Permanent Representative of Hungary to the United Nations, participated in a presentation by Holocaust survivors. He emphasized the importance of Holocaust education, with compulsory study being required for all primary and secondary school students.  High school students will be required to visit the Holocaust Documentation Centre. In addition to a general historical overview, the commemoration will specifically draw attention to the youngest victims.  Memorial plaques will be installed on the walls of schools to honor the children who were sent to concentration camps and to the teachers who made attempts to save them.  A new children’s memorial will also be created.

ICJW representatives at the event reported that the Ambassador spoke with regret about the Holocaust.   He urged that now is the time that Hungarians must face the past and apologize for playing a significant part in the Holocaust.   He accused the Hungarian state and society of not protecting its citizens.   In addition to the human loss there was also an immeasurable amount of lost contributions from Jews to Hungarian culture and science.   He urged that the nation must remember the tragedy and not forget.

Ambassador Korosi stated that the Hungarian government would not accept any form of anti-Semitism.   There is zero tolerance for hate crimes and Holocaust denial.   He acknowledged that anti-Semitism still exists as well as other forms of radicalism, but he stressed how laws and punishment are in place to act as deterrents.

Repeatedly through his presentation the Ambassador spoke of tragedy, guilt, apology and debt.   He emphasized, acknowledged and took responsibility that the Hungarian government and its people enabled the Holocaust to spread across its borders.   He spoke of the righteous who saved lives, but there were simply not enough.   The audience came away with the hope that the past will not be repeated.

Following the event, ICJW representatives shared their report on the event with Katalin Pecsi-Pollner, president of ICJW’s affiliate in Hungary, Esther's House Association. While accepting the sincerity of the ambassador, she said that his opinions have nothing to with the politics of the Hungarian government. She pointed to the increasing influence of the far-right Jobbik party and the inclusion in the preamble to the Hungarian Constitution that Hungarians bear no responsibility for the Holocaust - all the crimes were committed by the Germans.

Katalin said: “A few months ago I attended a conference organized by the Tom Lantos Institute in Budapest on anti-Semitism, at which Prime Minister Viktor Orban should have attended to speak, but he sent a message that he had been taken ill and his deputy Mr. Navrasics spoke in his place. Because of the politics of the government it would clearly have been uncomfortable for Mr. Orban to be present at that conference - it was another good example of “double-speak”.”

24 leading historians from all over the world have signed a declaration in support of Braham and other Hungarian historians who are opposing the memorial. They say: “As important as it is to point to the destructive impact of the German occupation in 1944-45, the most tragic consequence of that occupation – the murder of about 500,000 Jews from Greater Hungary – was also the result of the actions and attitudes of many Hungarians, officials and others. Hungarian troops committed atrocities abroad. While there were also non-Jewish Hungarians victimized by German occupation forces, it is historically grossly inadequate to present all Hungarians as a community of victims, minus the Arrow Cross Party.”

 

They are asking diplomatic representatives of foreign countries to reconsider their participation in sessions of the Hungarian Commission for the Holocaust Memorial Year 2014. A number of Jewish communities and organizations have announced that they will boycott Hungary’s Memorial Year 70 events, and some organizations have turned down funding from the government.