Time to Speak Out

Jewish leaders question the public memory of Hungary

It made me shiver”, said Rabbi Gábor Lengyel, the senior rabbi of the progressive Jewish community of Hannover, when he left Herzl Square in front of Budapest’s grand Dohány Street synagogue on March 19. He was referring to the verses by poet Miklós Radnóti, murdered in 1944, which were recited in unison by hundreds of the roughly three thousand people who attended the ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Hungary. Lengyel, who was born in Budapest in 1941, survived the Shoah together with his brother and an aunt in one of the protected houses of the Budapest ghetto. He left Hungary for Israel in 1956 and moved to Germany in 1965.
Rabbi Lengyel was a member of a delegation of the General Rabbinical Assembly of Germany, Allgemeine Rabbinerkonferenz Deutschlands (ARK), that traveled to Budapest in March to assess the present situation of the Jewish community in Hungary. ARK unites all liberal and conservative rabbis under the umbrella of the Central Council of Jews in Germany
The German rabbis met members of the Hungarian government as well as with the board members of MAZSIHISZ, the Neolog movement’s Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities. About a tenth of the country’s 100,000 Jews are associated with MAZSIHISZ, the country’s largest and most prominent Jewish representative body. The low level of religious affiliation stems probably from a lack of Jewish education and Jewish identity and from fear of anti-Semitism. A recent survey shows that 35 to 40 percent of the respondents accept some anti-Semitic stereotypes, while 7 percent share extremely anti-Semitic sentiments. Open antipathy has increased dramatically since 2010, when the far-right Jobbik party entered parliament for the first time. In the meantime, the government of premier Viktor Orbán, a coalition of his ruling right-wing Fidesz party and the Christian Democratic People’s party, has emphasized the Hungarian national identity to draw voters away from Jobbik.
Whitewashing history
SANYO DIGITAL CAMERADuring ARK’s visit, it became palpable that March 19, 1944 is a most controversial date in Hungarian history. On that very day, a few thousand German troops marched virtually unopposed into Hungary. According to the Hungarian constitution, adopted in 2011, with this act Hungary was deprived of its national sovereignty – even though Hungary’s regent and wartime leader Miklós Horthy remained head of state for another six months. On October 15th, the Nazis transferred power into the hands of the fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross Party whose murderous activists robbed and executed thousands of Jews in Budapest, throwing their corpses into the Danube.
Last January, Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen had ordered a memorial featuring a statue of an eagle (Germany) attacking the Archangel Gabriel (Hungary) to be completed and installed prior to March 19. The response from Germany’s ambassador to Hungary, Matei I. Hoffmann, was explicit: “The issue of memorials is the responsibility of the Hungarian government but it is regrettable that a decision to erect a monument for the victims of the 1944 German occupation has been made very quickly and without broad public consultation.”
Critics of the memorial objected to the notion that Germany was solely responsible for the subsequent deportation and murder of some 550,000 Hungarian Jews. At the memorial event on Herzl Square, MAZSIHISZ managing director Gusztáv Zoltai told the crowd that the Hungarian Holocaust did not begin on March 19, 1944. He said that the invasion of Hungary by the “Nazi war machine” was more “the spreading of an alliance.” “How can values shared with the Nazis become an eagle? How can the Horthy state and the Arrow Cross become the Archangel Gabriel?” In April, Zoltai stepped down.
Federation chairman András Heisler stated: “If necessary, we must lift our voices. If necessary, we must criticize the country’s leaders. If necessary, we must be able to say ‘no’ to power.” The president of the ARK, Rabbi Henry G. Brandt, agreed. “We cannot always hush and bow, that won’t work. We can and must represent our positions, even if they sometimes are contrary to government and politics,” he said. Against anti-Semitism “you have to raise your voice. The time for silence is over, once and for all.”
Among the issues the German rabbis examined was the unresolved problem resulting from the exclusion of Liberal Judaism from the category of privileged “churches” in Hungary in the 2011 amendment of the church law. “It has become clear that our efforts to have this decision overturned will not meet with success in the current legislative session either,” said Rabbi Walter Homolka, Vice President of the European Union for Progressive Judaism, after a meeting with Hungarian Minister of Human Resources Zoltán Balog on March 19. “Nevertheless, we intend to raise this matter in an appropriate manner to press for a reversal of the decision and the recognition for Liberal Judaism.”
Controversial church law
Deprived of its church status, the progressive Jewish community Sim Shalom lost 25 percent of its income and is no longer able to properly maintain its synagogue and programs. The same applies to the second progressive community in Budapest, Beth Orim. The Hungarian state pays a perpetual annuity of € 7 million per year to the Jewish communities recognized by the church law. Before 2009, only MAZSIHISZ benefited from this money. After the changes in the church law the Federation has to now share the public funds with the tiny Hungarian Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Community (MAOIH) and the United Hungarian Jewish Community (EMIH), which was created by Chabad Lubavitch in 2004. The installation of the controversial memorial for the Hungarian victims of the German invasion was postponed until after the election on April 6, which has proved the country’s tilt to the right. As for the denied church status of Liberal Judaism, no progress toward recovering it is expected before fall, when the new parliamentary session starts.

Photo Credit: JVG

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