Hungary’s Re-Elected Government: A New Jewish Problem

July 8, 2014


In 1944, my childhood rabbi, Joel T. Klein, and his would-be wife, Anna, she of blessed memory, were forcibly deported from Hungary to Auschwitz.  Rabbi Klein, only 20 and Anna, in her teens, were able to survive the camps to return to Hungary, only to escape before its turn to Communism.  Unlike Rabbi and Mrs. Klein, most of Hungarian Jewry did not share their fortune. They did not return.  They were killed.  By the end of the war 550,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators, of which there were many.  


Anti-Jewish sentiments run deep in Hungary.


It existed well before the rise of Hitler and National Socialism.   These anti-Jewish sentiments soak the Hungarian soil to this very day.


Rabbi Klein reminded me as I was growing up that in his elementary school he was made to kneel on corn kernels while wearing knickers while the other students were praying--extremely painful.  It was one of many anecdotes he had about pre-war life.  


The story of Hungary’s culpability as an Axis ally is well-known.  You can read about it on the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial.  Hungary’s leader, Regent Miklos Horthy, initially refused to deport the Jews of Hungary to the Nazi killing centers, though it had subjected them to wide-ranging discrimination and taken steps that had already resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands.


Horthy had no love for Hungarian Jews.  He did face domestic pressures that prevented him from participating in the Nazi deportations.  When the time came for the deportation, in 1944, after a failed attempt to switch sides to the Allies, there were no shortage of Hungarians who helped in deporting the country’s Jewish population.  Only the Jews of Budapest remained in Hungary.


Fast forward to 2014.  


Anna Klein, born in Hungary, a survivor of Auschwitz, and a simply wonderful human being, died in the recent past.  


Like Anna, many survivors of the Shoah, those who experienced it in their own lives, are dying out.  


We know of their experiences because they lived among us.  But many people DO NOT REMEMBER because, sadly, the Jewish survivors are diminishing, due to natural causes, and even with the unspeakable horror inflicted on European Jewry before, during, and after the Second World War, memories, especially in Europe, are short.


This is evident in Hungary.


Even with Hungary’s culpability with the Axis, and with Hitler in World War Two, there are those today who rewrote history in order to win an election by appealing to the base element of Jew hatred that still persists in Hungarian society.


As Santayana once wrote “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”


Fewer than 200,000 of Hungary’s Jews survived the war and today the high estimates for the Hungarian Jewish population is 135,000, the majority living in Budapest.  This is out of a population of over ten million people.


For such a small population one would think that the anti-Jewish political sentiment would have met the fate of the majority of Hungary’s Jewish population.


That is not the case.  


Anti-Jewish rhetoric reached fevered pitch again in the recently completed election-- and many of those responsible for the despicable broadsides were elected into the Hungarian government.


The president of the European Jewish Congress said electoral gains in Hungary by Jobbik, a far-right party with a history of anti-Semitism, should be a source of grave concern to Europe. Jobbik won nearly 21 percent of the votes in Sunday’s parliamentary election, up from nearly 16 percent four years ago.


EJC President Dr. Moshe Kantor said: “This is truly a dark day for Hungary.  The gains made by Jobbik, an unashamedly neo-Nazi political party, should serve as a wake-up call for the whole of Europe. Once again in Europe we are witnessing democracy being appropriated by those who are the enemies of democracy.”


The ultra nationalist Jobbik remains the third largest political party in Hungary. It pledged to create new jobs, crackdown on crime, renegotiate state debt and hold a referendum on European Union membership, according to Reuters.


Jobbik is “a party that feeds on hate,” Kantor said. “The new Hungarian government must ensure now that this hate is not tolerated, not by the government, not in parliament and not on the streets of Hungary.”


Just to give you more of Jobbik’s reprehensible rhetoric: in 2012 Jobbik lawmaker Marton Gyongyosi suggested during a parliament session that a census be taken of Jews in the country, and that a list of all Jewish lawmakers should be compiled for national security reasons.


In the recently completed election, Hungarian voters returned Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party to power, with 132 of 199 seats in the parliament.  One would think Fidesz would have more subtlety than Jobbik.  It does not.


One example: at a recent commemoration of Hungary’s attempt to break free from the Austrian Empire, Hungarian lawmaker Janos Hargitai said, “In 1848 it was the Rothschilds and now it’s the International Monetary Fund.  Hungarian independence compromises the Rothschilds’ interest.”


What makes his statement so pernicious is Hargitai is from the ruling Fidesz party, that is, the incumbent majority power that was just reelected.


Hargitay's statements are reflective of what political analysts say is the ruling party’s creeping nationalism and increasing aggression toward the Jewish community.


Eva Balogh, a historian and author of the Hungarian Spectrum blog, is quoted as saying, “Fidesz increasingly has been using Jobbik rhetoric as a direct response to Jobbik’s growing popularity in an attempt to weaken Jobbik and take over their voters by first taking over their programs.”


The shift was evident last year in the decision to display photos of classic anti-Semitic texts at a Fidesz-sponsored cultural festival and in a plan by the mayor of Budapest, Fidesz member Istvan Tarlos, to name a street after an anti-Jewish author.


Now Prime Minister Viktor Orban is clashing with the Hungarian Jewish community over commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Hungary.


The conflict erupted over the statue of an angel being attacked by an eagle – imagery that Mazsihisz (the Jewish community in Hungary) and other critics said whitewashed the complicity of Hungary’s pro-Nazi government in the murder of approximately 586,000 Jews during the Holocaust. The government ignored Mazsihisz protests on this and similar issues, prompting the group to pull out of government-led commemorations of the Holocaust and the Nazi occupation.  Earlier this week, government employees began constructing the contested monument, which is scheduled to be unveiled next month.   The Hungarian Jewish community is vehemently protesting this imagery because it clearly whitewashes Hungarian complicity with the Nazi’s.   Hungary was far from an angel and much more like the bird of prey.  Historic revisionism.  


One senior party figure accused the Jewish organization of aligning with the left, while the prime minister’s chief of staff, Janos Lazar, said this at a news conference:  “They (the Jewish organization) issued an ultimatum to the government, and this is causing more anxiety than a positive impact on the coexistence of Jews and Hungarians.


Repeatedly the Hungarian government denies any antipathy toward Jews. Officials repeatedly have acknowledged their country’s complicity with the Nazis, most recently in January, when Hungary’s U.N. ambassador, Csaba Korosi, apologized for “the Hungarian state’s guilt during the Holocaust.” In October, Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics, also a Fidesz member, acknowledged his country’s “responsibility” for the wartime deaths of Hungarian Jews.


Still, Istvan Rev, a professor of history and political science at the Central European University, said the government resisted requests from the Jewish community to consider alternatives for the monument that would have more clearly acknowledged Hungarian complicity.  


“This is an election year and the government does not want to be seen as backing down before those bloody Jews.”  Yes, a professor of history and political science said that.


Let us hope that the Jewish blood spilled by the Hungarians 70 years ago will not lead to similar events rising for the sake of nationalistic political expediency and winning elections.  

© 2017- 2019

Rabbi David Novak