Dr. Miklos Nemeth is not a name Israelis and Jews around the world are familiar
People who have taken a special interest in international relations
or closely followed the fall of communism in Europe might know a little bit
about him. But mostly he is known by researchers who have studied the secrets
behind the fall of the communist regime in East Germany and the background to
the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Nemeth served as prime minister of
Hungary from 1988-90, just before the communist regime ended. He was the one who
opened the Hungarian border to the citizens of East Germany who had been trapped
there during the communist years.
These people then crossed over the
Hungarian border and were finally able to reunite with their families in West
Germany. Nemeth had removed one “domino piece” from the Berlin Wall, and this
act led to its complete collapse.
I discovered Nemeth’s Jewish connection
on the shores of Lake Balaton in Hungary. No, he’s not Jewish, but his actions
that helped the Jews of the former Soviet Union during the Gorbachev years are
reason enough to grant him any Jewish or Israeli award we can think of.
met with Nemeth at the behest of my friend, Adv. Zvi Barak, who was the Jewish
Agency financial director during the years when the Iron Curtain was
We reached the shores of Lake Balaton (which happens to be an
amazing tourist destination that I highly recommend).
were anchored along the edge of the lake and restaurants and souvenir stores
surrounded the beach area.
The weather was perfect even though it was
late October, and the man sitting across from us spoke fluent English and also
turned out to be a clever and fascinating conversationalist.
We spent the
first few minutes talking about the years Nemeth had served as prime minister of
I applauded him for his contribution to bringing the Berlin Wall
Barak added that Nemeth had been the Hungarian prime minister
responsible for arranging flights from Budapest to Tel Aviv for Soviet Jewish
Nemeth accepted the compliment modestly and politely and asked
to hear how the former secretary-general of World Jewish Congress Dr. Israel
Singer was, and this question led us to the topic of Soviet Jewry’s
Barak told us how Singer and the WJC president at the time,
Edgar Bronfman, had met with Gorbachev and this meeting had led to the opening
for the first time of the gates to the Jews of the Soviet Union. Nemeth calmly
asked us if we’d be interested in hearing how this meeting came to be. Since I
am a naturally curious person, I immediately jumped at this offer.
began his story by talking about Mikhail Gorbachev, who at the time was the
Soviet Union’s Central Committee’s secretariat for agriculture.
himself was serving in a senior position in the Hungarian government’s economic
department and agriculture policy fell under his jurisdiction.
Soviets were extremely jealous of Hungary’s agricultural success so they sent
Gorbachev to learn Hungary’s secrets, and Nemeth was chosen to play host. They
spent two weeks together, during which they traveled around the Hungarian
Nemeth told us that right away he could tell that Gorbachev was
from a new breed of European-oriented Soviet leaders.
Two years later,
Bronfman and Singer approached Nemeth and asked him to mediate between them and
Gorbachev, who by then was head of state.
They asked Nemeth to try to set
up a meeting between WJC leaders and Gorbachev to discuss the situation of
Soviet Jews since, unfortunately, the Soviet authorities had refused to schedule
Nemeth turned to his friend Gorbachev and asked him to arrange the
meeting. A date and time were set, but at the last moment the Soviets delayed
the meeting to cover up for the fact that they didn’t really want to hold the
But Nemeth did not give up and turned once again to Gorbachev
and asked to hold the meeting in the near future.
still felt gratitude toward Nemeth for his wonderful hospitality when he had
been the Soviet agricultural secretary, so he agreed to hold the
“Why do you want to keep all of these refuseniks?” Nemeth asked
Gorbachev. “Let the people who are protesting against the Soviet regime
Gorbachev finally agreed, but stipulated that he would not allow
direct flights between Moscow and Israel, since the two countries did not have
Nemeth replied that this was not a problem. Since
Hungary had recently renewed diplomatic relations with Israel, Hungary would be
happy to assist Jews arriving from Moscow to continue on a connecting flight out
of Budapest. Malev and El Al airlines already both had scheduled flights between
Tel Aviv and Budapest. This way, the Jews would not be flying to Israel directly
from Moscow. Gorbachev agreed and Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union was
AS IF all that he had done for Soviet Jews until now was not
great enough, Nemeth went on to tell us about an attempt to halt Malev flights
This story absolutely knocked us off our chairs.
day while I was prime minister, I participated in a conference that was not in
the capital. I returned home that night on a flight that landed at 10:00 pm. To
my astonishment, I was greeted by dozens of reporters who had been waiting for
me at the airport – and I had no idea why! The conference had not been so
important and the decisions taken there were not controversial in the
“When I asked my advisers what the issue was, they told me that
due to the threat of Palestinian terror, the CEO of Malev Hungarian Airlines had
cancelled the Tel Aviv-Budapest route. So I immediately ordered the minister of
transportation and the Malev CEO to my offices at 11:00 pm that
“When the two of them entered my office, I asked the Malev CEO
what had happened.
“He replied that he’d received threats from Islamic
Jihad [but he actually meant the PFLP – Y.D.] that the lives of all passengers
on Malev flights around the world were in danger if the airline did not desist
in transporting Jews who were making aliya to Israel.
“The Malev CEO, who
was concerned for the safety of Malev passengers worldwide decided to halt
flights to Israel and was in the midst of trying to find an American airline
that could take over these flights.
“Before he even had a chance to sit
down I told him he was fired and I threw him out of my office. Then I picked up
the phone and called his predecessor who had retired and asked him to come
urgently to my office; by the time he arrived, it was close to
“I told him that his retirement was hereby revoked and that I
was reinstating him as the CEO of the Hungarian national airline. His first
task, I told him, was to make sure that the next flight to Tel Aviv, which was
scheduled for 10:30 am, would take off as planned. And it did.”
interrupted here to tell us that in essence there never had been any real threat
to Malev Airlines. In the end, the entire story had been a ruse by three senior
Malev executives and the deputy director of Hungarian Intelligence, who had
started an American company whose aim was to make some cash from the exodus of
Nemeth confirmed that Barak’s version was accurate; he said
that there had been a conspiracy against him and at no time had there been any
real terrorist threat.
I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of fascinating
stories, but I just had to ask: What led you to make the decision to put the
lives of Hungarian citizens in jeopardy just to help Soviet Jews? Without
hesitating even a second, Nemeth responded: “I had given my word and I always
follow through with my promises.”
The author is a strategic adviser to
President Shimon Peres.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.