WASHINGTON – According to the Hungarian government, the erection of a statue in the small city of Székesfehérvár, honoring a fascist and pioneer of Hungary’s participation in the deportation of Jews during the Holocaust, is a democratic affair within the rights of a private foundation named in his honor.
Indeed, Bálint Hóman – the country’s former minister of religion and education, considered a scholar and statesman by the Bálint Hóman Foundation – will soon be memorialized in this town unless Budapest intervenes. Under different leadership, Hungary’s Justice Ministry approved and released $52,000 in funds for the project.
Several ministers in the Hungarian cabinet have expressed disappointment, in English, that the ceremony will proceed, recognizing Hóman’s role in writing laws that corralled the country’s Jews in the 1930s and 40s. But these ministers are saying something different in Hungarian. On government websites, since last May, the official position on the statue has been one of support.
The Bálint Hóman Foundation is run by former members of Jobbik, Hungary’s far-right nationalist party. With a series of successes in 2014, the party has grown in strength to become the third largest in Hungary’s parliament – a threat to the right-wing government of Prime Minister Victor Orbán, who has yet to condemn the Bálint Hóman statue project.
One foundation leader, Gabor Kovats, says the memorializing of Hóman is justified by everything he did to build the city of Székesfehérvár. Kovats’ Facebook page is marked with “88,” a historic German abbreviation for HH – Heil Hitler, the Nazi salute.
“The foundation is responsible for the reputation of one man,” said Mark Weitzman, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a leader in protesting the project. “The Hungarian government is responsible for the history and the people of Hungary.”
Officials continue to say the statue is a private affair. But the United States and its allies are not buying Hungary’s argument. “The government of Hungary, and the local government of Székesfehérvár, have funded this project. We are confident that they can end this project as well,” Ira Forman, the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, told The Jerusalem Post in a phone call from Budapest.
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“The United States government believes it is up to the government of Hungary to make this decision to use their money to honor someone so disgraceful and so instrumental in the eradication of European Jewry,” he continued.
Condemnation of the project began months ago, primarily from US-based Jewish groups and non-governmental organizations. A group of congressmen sent a letter to Orbán protesting the project this month, following one from leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Jewish Federations of North America.
“We have received various and contradictory messages about who exactly is responsible for this project and who has the authority to stop it. However, we have no doubt that should you choose to intervene personally you can ensure that the statue will not be erected and Hungary’s reputation will not be further stained,” reads the Jewish organizations’ joint letter, sent on November 25. “We strongly urge you to do so.”
US fears over the project extend beyond the symbolism of a single statue. The real concern is over Budapest’s reaction to the uproar – tepid at best, officials say – and that more statues, educational initiatives and other methods of whitewashing Hungary’s role in World War II may be in the works.
That's because the controversy over Bálint Hóman is not the first of its kind in recent years. In 2014, Hungary’s main Jewish political body threatened to boycott the country’s Holocaust commemorations over perceived efforts by the government to whitewash its role in the atrocity. And earlier this year, the same people now condemning a statue to Hóman were calling on Hungary to cancel an event honoring Albert Wass, a writer and Nazi collaborator.
For the first time in its history, Hungary acknowledged its role in the Holocaust with a speech from its ambassador to the UN in 2014. “Institutions in the then-Hungarian state were responsible for the Holocaust,” Ambassador Casba Körösi said.
But to State Department officials, Hungary’s political trends appear to be moving in the opposite direction. Washington’s strategy is to warn Budapest of consequences: The State Department will make noise, officials say, and will make sure everyone hears.
“There’s no hiding this,” Forman said. “We are going to be speaking out. We are going to be telling NGOs of the world – and others – what is going on. The question is, can governments live with the world knowing that they are honoring someone who is so deeply stained with anti-Semitism?” At an event in Budapest Wednesday morning, the ambassadors of Israel, Canada, Germany, France and Austria to Hungary joined the US in warning against the statue project proceeding. The State Department flew in Deputy Assistant Secretary Rob Berschinski to join in support.
“The United States, other governments, and concerned groups from around the world are not, and cannot, dictate to Hungary how it chooses to interpret its past,” Berschinski said. “Whether this statue is built is an issue for Hungarians to decide. We can, however, call upon the government of Hungary to state without qualification that a memorial to Bálint Hóman shall never exist. Not a statute or a plaque. Not now, not six months from now. Not ever.”
US officials say they are optimistic Budapest will ultimately intervene. Székesfehérvár’s mayor said this week he is lobbying the foundation to reconsider its plans and to return the funds released by the government. A meeting with Forman, the mayor and several Jewish world leaders is scheduled for Wednesday morning.
Kovats said Tuesday the December 29 inauguration of the statue has been “postponed.”
Orbán’s government has remained largely silent, however.
“We invited the Hungarian government to send a high-level executive to explain their position,” Weitzman said. “They have declined to do so.”
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