BUDAPEST – Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau, accompanied by Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan, commemorated the 70th anniversary of the destruction of Hungarian Jewry on Monday during a memorial in Budapest.
Most of the 568,000 Hungarian Jews murdered during the Holocaust were deported after the Nazis occupied their erstwhile ally in 1944.
The issue of the Holocaust in Hungary is especially sensitive to the local Jewish community, numbering at approximately 100,000, due to allegations that senior government officials have sought to whitewash their nation’s role in the mass murder.
According to Yad Vashem, the Jews of Hungary “were deported under German command mostly by Hungarian police and officials.” Tens of thousands more died as a result of being impressed into military service as forced laborers. Thousands were transferred to the Germans and subsequently shot in 1941, three years before the occupation.
Monday’s commemoration was organized as part of a twoday clerical conference organized by the Rabbinical Center of Europe, one of two extant continental Rabbinical organizations. The conference brought hundreds of Rabbis from across Europe – a significant plurality of whom are affiliated with the Chabad Hassidic movement – in Budapest in order to discuss issues relating to assimilation and communal attrition, said Rabbinical Center of Europe leader Rabbi Menachem Margolin.
In an email to The Jerusalem Post before the gathering, Margolin, who also runs the Brussels-based European Jewish Association, said that the conference was intended to “address the issues that most affect the Jewish religious life in Europe like banning of the religious practices of shechita and brit mila [circumcision].”
“Budapest has the second largest community on the European soil. There are 100,000 Jews living in Budapest, and while many people wish to focus attention principally on how to combat anti-Semitism, as a rabbinical organization we believe that we should also spend energies to assist thriving developing Jewish life there,” he said of his choice of venue.
Singing “Ani ma’amin,” a Hebrew song affirming belief in the coming of the Messiah, the chief rabbis, heading a long train of black clad ultra-Orthodox Jews, marched several blocks along the banks of the Danube River to the Shoes on the Danube Promenade – a Holocaust memorial site where a stage had been erected for the afternoon’s event.
The memorial is the site of a massacre by Hungarian fascists who lined Jews up along the river and made them remove their shoes before shooting them, allowing their bodies to land in the Danube.
The event was opened by Shlomo Koves, head of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Community, a Chabad organization.
The Mazsihisz, Hungary’s largest communal body that represents the Neolog denomination – a mild form of reform native to Hungary – was not represented at the memorial. It is embroiled in a conflict with the Hungarian government over accusations that authorities have engaged in the “relativization” of the Holocaust as part of the country’s official commemorations.
Hungary declared 2014 as a Holocaust memorial year.
Together with the Mazsihisz, both the Frankel Synagogue Foundation and Jewish Cultural and Tourism Center are boycotting all government sponsored Holocaust memorial events.
Mazsihisz head Andras Heisler told the Post on Monday that his organization had “asked the organizers to postpone the event after the elections – but they didn’t listen to us.”
The Neolog community’s concerns center around media reports that the rabbinic gathering and memorial ceremony were being “organized in cooperation with the Hungarian government,” as stated by organizers last month.
Rabbi Margolin subsequently said that the language of the statement was unclear and that the event was not sponsored by the government but rather that security and logistics for the event had been coordinated with Hungarian authorities.
Present at the event were “representatives from the Hungarian government” including Hungarian Defense Minster Csaba Hende, according to organizers.
Israeli Ambassador Ilan Mor and Holocaust survivor Grand Rabbi Menachem Mendel Taub, the Kaliver rebbe, were also in attendance.
In a message directed at Lau, Heisler invited the chief rabbi to aid the local community in its disagreement with the government.
“Currently when we on a daily basis have to fight the falsification of history and relativization of the Holocaust [Lau’s] personal presence and guidance would give us strength in order to solve the complicated social situation,” Heisler told the Post.
Speaking with the Post, Rabbi Lau said that it was incredibly significant to stand near where Adolf Eichmann sat and “thought himself king of the world,” and to be among rabbis who “spread the Torah” throughout Europe.
We stand here to say “the nation of Israel lives,” Lau said.
About “70 years ago [this] water was red with blood of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren,” the Rabbinical Center of Europe’s Rabbi Moshe David Liberman told the crowd, referring to the Danube which flowed only meters from the stage.
“How is it possible to find the words to speak about the unspeakable, unbearable, indescribable and unimaginable? If we speak maybe even a heart of stone will be moved, and even if no one listens we have to continue to speak so we do not become hardened.”
“The Germans succeeded in infecting untold people, big segments of populations, with the virus of hate and cruelty,” Liberman said. “To our shame and chagrin [this hate] exists even today and unless we recognize it and speak about it and take action to eradicate it who knows what might happen.”
“Never again is not enough unless inspired by the same passion for renewing the Jewish people as the hate the killers brought” to their task, he said.
Speaking after Liberman, Taub said that the attendees were standing on “holy ground,” sanctified by the Jewish blood.