A controversial memorial to the German occupation of Hungary is “not a Holocaust memorial,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban wrote to US congressmen in response to American criticism last week.
The statue in question will depict a Germanic eagle descending on the angel Gabriel, a Hungarian symbol, and bear inscriptions reading “German occupation of Hungary, March 19, 1944” and “To the memory of all victims,” but will make no explicit reference to the Jewish community.
The Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary (Mazsihisz) and other organizations have objected to the erection of the memorial, asserting that its depiction of Hungary as a quiescent and passive victim is inaccurate and serves to absolve the onetime Nazi ally from responsibility for its actions. The Mazsihisz and a number of other civil society organizations are currently boycotting all activities connected with the Hungarian government’s 2014 Holocaust memorial year.
Hungary is slated to assume the chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2015.
Fascist Hungary was an ally of Berlin for most of World War II. When Germany discovered that Budapest was conducting secret negotiations with the United States and Great Britain, it turned on its erstwhile confederate.
US Rep. Eliot Engel and 29 other American legislators wrote to Orban in May, calling on the premier to reconsider his plans for the memorial.
“While we understand and greatly appreciate the desire to honor all Hungarians brutalized during the Nazi occupation, we also believe that Hungary’s remaining Jewish population should participate in determining the appropriate way to remember the suffering of Hungary’s Jews during this period,” the lawmakers wrote.
“The Nazi occupation of Hungary was a horrific period in Hungarian history, which caused incalculable suffering and tragedy to millions of innocent people.
And while there were individuals in Hungary who actively helped those persecuted by the Nazis, it cannot be ignored that there was also a portion of the population at that time that willingly participated in Nazi activities, including the deportation of Hungarian Jews…. We urge you to reconsider your government’s current plan to construct this monument against the wishes of the Hungarian Jewish community.”
In response, Orban denied that the memorial was in any way connected to the Jewish community and said that his government was doing everything in its power to coordinate with his country’s Jewish communities.
He asserted that the monument is intended to mark the “loss of state sovereignty” and “is not a Holocaust memorial.”
“In Hungary, the decisions to give moral and spiritual restitution to the members of the Jewish community, who had lived with us throughout history and had become an integral part of the Hungarian nation, have been taken. We established the Holocaust Museum, we introduced Holocaust Remembrance Day and we declared zero tolerance against anti-Semitism,” Orban explained.
The government, he added, “is counting on the opinion and the participation of the Hungarian Jewish community regarding every important moment of the Holocaust memorial year. We consider the Holocaust as an equally dark period in the world and Hungarian history.”
Reports that the government was beginning construction of the memorial surfaced in April, around the same time that Orban declared his abiding respect for his “fellow Jewish countrymen” in a letter to Mazsihisz president Andras Heisler.
A government spokesman told a delegation of Jewish reporters in Budapest several weeks ago that allegations that the statue is aimed at diminishing the Hungarian role in ordering the deportation of Jews is a “distortion.”
“That was not meant to be a Holocaust monument but a monument that would remember the Nazi occupation of Hungary that happened in 1944. The plan is to give a memorial site to all victims of the German occupation,” he said.
Peter Feldmajer, the immediate past president of the Mazsihisz, recently told The Jerusalem Post that he felt that Orban was trying to “crush” the communal body and that his insistence of building the monument as planned was “an attack on the dignity of the Jewish community.”
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