Top Budapest Rabbi opposes recovery of remains from Danube

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri blasts non-Orthodox Hungarian community for opposing search for remains of Holocaust victims.

Deri, escorted by ZAKA divers, is standing at the banks of the Danube in Hungary (photo credit: ZAKA RESCUE AND RECOVERY ORGANIZATION)
Deri, escorted by ZAKA divers, is standing at the banks of the Danube in Hungary
The Chief Rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Budapest Rabbi Robert Simcha Yisrael Frohlich has said of a current search for Jewish remains in the Danube River from the Holocaust era that he believes it would be more respectful of the dead to leave any human remains where they lie.
His comments join those of the Mazsihisz federation of non-Orthodox communities which expressed opposition to the project earlier this month.
The search, being conducted by the ZAKA organization which specializes in recovering Jewish remains from terrorist attacks, accidents and natural disasters, began last week and is designed to locate and recover the remains of Jews who were shot and killed along the banks of the Danube River in Budapest, Hungary, and fell into the river during mass killings during the Holocaust.
Any Jewish remains recovered will be brought for Jewish burial.
Interior Minister Arye Deri has publicly backed the search, and has strongly criticized the Neolog, non-Orthodox community in Hungary for opposing it, calling its position “inexcusable, reprehensible and deserving of strong condemnation.”
The Neolog community is a long established Jewish denomination in Hungary and is akin to Conservative Judaism, with an association of some 40 synagogues.
Some 80,000 Jews were massacred on the banks of the Danube in 1944 by Hungarian forces under the fascist government of the Arrow Cross Party, according to Yad Vashem. After several years of preparation, ZAKA has begun its search, using divers, imaging equipment and other means.
The beginning of the search was announced with some fanfare, including messages of thanks from Deri to his Hungarian counterpart Interior Minister Sandor Pinter for his promise to provide material support for the search.
However, the Mazsihisz federation of Neolog communities in Hungary, an old established non-Orthodox community, has publicly opposed the search, and Frohlich expressed his own opposition on Tuesday.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Frohlich explained his reasoning for opposing the search, although stressed he was speaking in his own capacity and not for the Mazsihisz federation, and did not want to get involved in internal Jewish conflicts.
The rabbi pointed out that the remains of many people likely lie in the Danube, noting that large numbers of suicides that have been committed in the river over the years, especially during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while shipping disasters and other historical incidents have also contributed bodies to the Danube.
Frohlich said that he did not know if any bones recovered could reliably be determined to be Jewish, and said that any DNA testing that might be possible would be “a dangerous direction” to go in and would stray into “racial theory,” which he said would be undesirable.
The rabbi also pointed out that the remains of Jewish converts would be excluded from Jewish burial if genetic testing was used to identify Jewish remains.
“Ethically we have no right to disturb the thousands of dead people in the river. It doesn’t matter if they were Jews or non-Jews,” Frohlich told the Post.
He also expressed bewilderment as to why a search is being conducted specifically in the Danube for the remains of Jews massacred in the Holocaust, as opposed to any other site of mass killings of Jews during the period across Europe.
“I myself have relatives who were shot into the Danube and found their resting place there. It is more respectful to leave the dead where they are,” said Frohlich.
In a statement earlier this month, the Mazsihisz Federation of Neolog communities said that “Disturbing the resting place of the dead is a complex and sensitive issue” and that “Searching and probing for bones is superfluous, an affront to the honor and rest of the dead, Jews and non-Jews alike, and is in conflict with Jewish law.”
Like Frohlich, the Mazsihisz Federation pointed out that the remains of many non-Jewish people likely rest in the Danube, including those who died during the siege of Budapest by the Red Army in 1944.
Tens of thousands of Soviet, Nazi and Hungarian troops died during the battle for the city, as well as an estimated 38,000 civilians.
The Mazsihisz Federation also cast doubts as to whether or not any remains found could be reliably identified as Jewish.
Deri took issue with these arguments and strongly denounced the Neolog community for its opposition to the project.
“I was shocked and dismayed by the announcement of the Neolog community in Hungary which, citing fallacious arguments and defying any trace of Jewish conscience, objects to the initiative that would exhume the remains of Holocaust victims from the Danube River with the goal of giving them a Jewish burial,” said Deri.
“Bestowing this final honor to the martyrs is both a Jewish and humane value of the highest regard. The fact that there are people and groups making political and cynical calculations at the expense of innocent Holocaust victims is inexcusable, reprehensible and deserving of strong condemnation.”
ZAKA declined to comment as to whether or not it intends to try and identify any remains recovered, and if so how.