Is Hungary Good For Today’s Hungarian Jews?
Unlike Germany, Hungary has not accepted its part in the Holocaust. The official Hungarian position is that the Nazis made them do it when they occupied Hungary in early 1944. Perhaps they hope that this will be enough to obviate the need for reparations to Hungarian Jews as they seem to seek a relationship with Israel.
While Hungary claims Regent Miklós Horthy and Prime Minister Miklós Kállay resisted Nazi commands to round up the Jews and kill or deport them, the truth is that 8 weeks sufficed to deport over 400,000 Jews to Auschwitz before Horthy stopped it. This was far more than the Nazis had expected; Hungary added trains to the schedule and it seems they could not get rid of their Jews and take over their land and property fast enough. Their enthusiasm for getting rid of the Jews was matched by the Arrow Cross Party who took over the government in October ’44 but they only managed to kill fewer than 100,000 Jews in death marches, labour camps and massacres along the Danube River.
So when current Hungarian President, Viktor Orbán tells Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Hungary is now safe for the Jews, does he mean the kind of “safe” there was under Horthy or does he mean that Hungary is really changing?
Today’s media may not be openly antisemitic, but known Jew haters host programmes and are interviewed on them, using terms that are easily recognized as antisemitic. Just as in other parts of the world, the new antisemitism is often cloaked in “pro-Palestinian” anti-Israelism whereby the Israelis/Jews are portrayed as cruel and evil.
Holocaust denial seems commonplace outside the main cities where antisemitism — in fact hatred of Jews, Romani and all those considered foreigners — is still rampant. It does not help that, since the 1944 ethnic cleansing of the countryside, all that is left of the Jewish communities are abandoned cemeteries. Not having contact with living and breathing Hungarian Jews allows hatred to fester. Trying to counteract that is a Budapest Jewish theatre troupe that travels to small towns, but only the educated and curious will take advantage of the opportunity to learn about the Jews.
The larger cities are more tolerant; city residents are better educated and many speak at least some English, facilitating interaction with the internationals, whether these are tourists, students or business people and more. And I met many people who were happy to share with me their Jewish family backgrounds, whether they were Halachically Jewish or not. So perhaps Hungary is changing.
And yet, the tourist buses (hop on hop off) plying the streets of Budapest proudly show the Dohány Street Synagogue, second largest in the world, but then drive past the Shoe Memorial on the side of the Danube River in front of the Parliament Buildings as if it was not there. I got off the bus and walked to the spot that memorializes the fact that Jews were marched from the ghettos to the banks of the Danube, told to take their shoes off and then shot, falling into the cold river waters that whisked their bodies away from the crime scene. Wikipedia claims that 3500 people were shot, 800 of them Jews. And the plaque at the site seems to concur that these were just some random victims.
The true number is likely closer to 20,000 Jews whereas a Holocaust Memorial Brochure puts the number at 100,000 Jews but that is probably too high.
It seems that whatever question I ask about the Jews of Hungary, I get at least three different answers.
For me, the Shoe Memorial represents what was most disturbing to me about Hungary — the contrast between stunning beauty and “stunning” memories of horror. Look at one spot that served as backdrop for the Danube River massacres, the Hungarian Parliament:
And now get a feel for what happened in 1944-45 along the banks of that very same river:
Each of the 60 pairs of shoes set out along the river represents over 2000 Hungarian Jews shot in cold blood.
Can a new relationship with the Jews of Hungary (and the world) be built upon denial?
Hungarian President Viktor Orbán and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seem like friends. Orbán makes a deal with Chabad in Budapest and, among other projects, helps them finance the building of a new slaughterhouse. It seems that the Hungarian government is seeking to normalize relations with her Jewish citizens and with the Jewish state.
Seems that way . . .
Until you wonder why Orbán is making financial deals with Chabad rather than with the Neolog Jewish Community. Orbán invited the leader of the Chabad in Budapest to meet with Netanyahu when he was there. The leader of the Neolog community was not invited. Yet, Chabad is a very small community and it is actually a recent import from the United States while the Neolog is the sector of the Jewish population with which the great bulk of Hungarian Jews are affiliated and have been affiliated since 1868. Moreover, Jews have been in Hungary since about 1000 CE.
Now let us consider the slaughterhouse project – perhaps helping establish a kosher slaughterhouse seems like a philanthropic endeavour, a sign that Jews in Hungary are now safe and accepted, especially in light of the fact that kosher slaughter is being challenged in other parts of Europe. But it is specifically a slaughterhouse for geese. Foie gras is very profitable; kosher foie gras even more so. Something is fishy here.
Graffiti has gone up around Hungary showing Orbán riding a toy train, making fun of the fact that he built a special train line to his own village. Will there soon be graffiti of Orbán riding a goose? The goose that laid the golden eggs? And who, aside from Chabad, will profit from those “golden eggs”? Hungary? Orbán himself?
And what has this got to do with making amends to the native Hungarian Jewish population?
I get a sense of foreboding when I think about this deal with Chabad. It seems too much like riding on the tails of Jewish stereotypes – you know, rich Jews who know how to make money and want to take over the world. Here we have a Hungarian leader with a reputation for nepotism making deals with foreign Jews in a very creative get-rich scheme. It does not look good. It does not smell good.
Chabad, I hope you have your eyes wide open and do not prove, in the end, to have been naive. I hope that, in your enthusiasm for kosher meat/profitable business/promoting good relations among the goyim, you are not helping to bring disaster down upon the native Hungarian Jewish population you are pushing aside, those who know Hungarian culture and mindset better than you.
During the Holocaust, Hungary thought it could turn around its dire economic troubles by getting rid of the Jews and taking over their property; now it seems Hungary may be thinking it can turn around its contemporary economic troubles by sucking up to the Jews. I doubt that will turn out to be good for the Jews.
As one of my new Hungarian friends said:
I live day by day in a state of denial. And in the back of my mind, I know that Israel is there to catch me if I need catching.
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I want to thank László Klein without whose help this article could never have been written. László took upon himself to educate me regarding Hungarian Jewish history and current affairs (and made sure I would see the Orbán graffiti, one of the only samples for some reason left untouched by the authorities).