The Hungarian ambassador to the UN said in New York on Thursday his nation took responsibility for its role in the Holocaust, days after the country’s Jewish community accused the government of engaging in Holocaust revisionism.
He spoke at a event commemorating the 70th anniversary of the deportation of Hungarian Jews, sponsored by the UN Department of Public Information for NGOs.
Ambassador Casba Körösi, who became unusually emotional for a diplomat during his remarks, conveyed the sincere apologies of the Hungarian state for the crimes committed, and admitted the state’s guilt in both its complicity in standing by and its assistance to the criminals.
“Institutions in the then-Hungarian state were responsible for the Holocaust,” Körösi said. “This apology must be made part of the national memory and identity of the Hungarian state.”
The Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz) has been involved in a high-profile dispute with President Viktor Orbán’s administration over a series of incidents which it believes show a tendency towards downplaying their countrymen’s role in the genocide of Hungarian Jewry.
Last week the Mazsihisz threatened to boycott all events associated with their government’s yearlong commemoration of the Holocaust. Hungary has declared 2014 to be the Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Year, with special attention paid and new memorials erected to the child victims.
The ultimatum, delivered via the website of the Mazsihisz on Sunday, comes in response to a statement by Sándor Szakály, director of the state-sponsored Veritas Historical Research Institute, allegedly minimizing the Holocaust.
Szakály reportedly termed the deportation and massacre of tens of thousands of Jews in Kamianets-Podilskyi, Ukraine, during World War II, “police action against aliens.”
Mazsihisz and other Jewish organizations have demanded that Szakály apologize and step down.
The Jewish community was further incensed by Orbán’s decision to push ahead with the erection of a statue depicting a Germanic eagle descending on the Angel Gabriel, a Hungarian symbol, in Budapest.
The statue will 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.
According to the Mazsihisz, the erection of a statue depicting Hungary as a quiescent and passive victim is inaccurate and serves to absolve the Nazi ally from responsibility for its actions.
Following the receipt of a letter from Orbán defending the statue, Mazsihisz President Andras Heisler told The Jerusalem Post it was clear the president was refusing to modify his course of action.
“Prime Minister Orbán’s letter contains a serious reply. The request of the Mazsihisz is being refused,” he said in an email.
Given the recent tensions between Orbán and Heisler, it may be that Körösi’s statement is Budapest’s attempt at reconciliation.
The Mazsihisz has not yet responded to the apology.
Responding to a question from the New York audience about the growing anti-Semitism movement in Hungary, Körösi responded that “undoubtedly, [anti-Semitism] exists, but it does not reflect the majority opinion of Hungarian society, and it is marginalized, both in the parliament and outside the parliament.”
“One anti-Semitic voice is far more than I can accept, and far more than we can accept,” Körösi said, and enumerated the various ways in which the Hungarian government has tried to crack down on anti-Semitic speech and activity, including making hate speech a crime and opening up a hotline for people to report anti-Semitic activity.
The ultra-nationalist Jobbik party, deemed a neo-Nazi faction by the World Jewish Congress, currently holds 43 out of 386 seats in the Hungarian parliament.
“We don’t know how long it will take to fully eradicate anti-Semitism,” Körösi said. “But society needs to discuss its problems and understand its problems. I hope other countries will do their part in that.”
Körösi added that the Hungarian government declared August 2, 2014 to be a national day of remembrance for the 100,000 Hungarian Roma victims of the genocide.
At the UN event on Thursday, Budapest native and Holocaust survivor Agnes Vertes told the audience that March 19, 1944, the day German forces occupied Hungary, might as well be Hungary’s 9/11.
Vertes, who was four years old when the Nazis came to Hungary, took the audience through her experiences running and hiding from both the Nazis and the anti-Semitic Arrow Cross gangs with her parents and her then-two-year-old sister. Her parents moved their two children from the city to a small town, then back to Budapest on a train where they were nearly thrown off for being Jews.
Vertes, who was born Agnes Katz, was told that they then had to be Lutheran, change their name, and acquire fake papers. The girls went to live with a Christian woman, and then to the former home of the mayor of Budapest with 100 other children, where Nazi or Arrow Cross members would come every day to look for Jewish children to take away.
Usually, Vertes said, the Nazis could be plied with alcohol and would leave quickly.
“One time, a pair of real nasty Hungarian Arrow Cross [men] came, and wanted everybody’s papers,” Vertes told the fairly full hall at the UN. “And my little sister, who just learned to talk, ran up to nasty Arrow Cross man, and pulled on trousers, and said ‘Hey mister soldier, can I try on your cap?’
“The Arrow Cross melted, and picked her up and threw her in the air, and said ‘Can anyone but an Aryan child be as cute as this one?’ And this is how my little sister saved 100 Jewish children.”
Vertes recalled, and went on to recount how that home eventually burned down in the fighting between the Russians and the Nazis, and she fell over frozen bodies and body parts in the streets trying to escape.
At the beginning of the war, she said, her family had 270 members. By the end, 70 were left.
Professor of history and genocide Carol Rittner gave the audience a brief overview of the history of the deportations, and even responded strongly to a representative from the mission of the Holy See, who claimed that Pope Pius XII, who was the pope at the time of the Second World War, “did what he could” to speak out against the genocide and help.
“I believe you need to get your history straight,” the history professor told the holy man. “I did say that Pius XII spoke out, but no one understood him and he spoke in hazy language.”
Rittner, an author of the 2004 book Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust, added courteously, “No one more than me wants Pius XII to come out looking good.”