Meet the ambassador: Ambassador Peter Hulenyi says he knows the limits of Slovak diplomacy

‘I’m not here to change the world and the Middle East peace process’

SLOVAKIAN AMBASSADOR Peter Hulenyi plants a tree in the JNF’s Yatir Forest. (photo credit: Courtesy)
SLOVAKIAN AMBASSADOR Peter Hulenyi plants a tree in the JNF’s Yatir Forest.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The most common question that is asked of people who grew up in the former Czechoslovakia is how they feel about the January 1993 split which resulted in two sovereign states: the Republic of Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
When the question is put to Slovakian Ambassador Peter Hulenyi, he smiles and replies that if it hadn’t happened, it’s unlikely that he would be a diplomat, much less in his first posting as an ambassador abroad.
“The best thing that happened to us was the change of regime from Communism to democracy,” he says.
He considers himself to be part of what he calls “the best generation.”
Unlike his parents’ generation which grew up in a totalitarian regime, and unlike his children’s generation which takes democracy for granted, people of his generation who were young adults making the transition from Communism to democracy “understand the value of freedom.
That’s something the next generation has missed. We have to remind them.
“If it wasn’t for the Velvet Revolution [of 1989], I wouldn’t be here, because Slovakia would have no embassy, and I don’t think that I would have entered diplomacy without a change of regime.”
Under the Communist administration, one of the conditions for being accepted into the Foreign Service was to study in Moscow. Hulenyi did not qualify in this respect. In Czechoslovakia, he studied electrical engineering, computers and journalism. Like many Czechs and Slovaks, his initial reaction to the change was a blend of emotion and concern. “I’d grown up Czechoslovakian, so it was difficult.”
It was a completely different situation to that of Israelis and Palestinians, simply because while Palestinians may be living to a large extent under Israeli rule, they are not part of a federation and have never considered themselves to be Israeli.
With the Czechs and the Slovaks it was two nations working together, living together, mingling socially and then splitting up into two sovereign democratic states, each responsible for themselves Explaining the growing pains of the two new entities, Hulenyi says: “You can’t complain or accuse the other side for mistakes. You are responsible.
For the first two years of democracy, we were blaming each other for everything. Democracy is a gift, but we didn’t have any experience with democracy. We also had to get rid of the shaming and blaming demons of the past. Now we are two highly successful member states of the European Union with successful economies and very high GDP.”
Both countries joined the European Union in 2004.
His studies and work in journalism have benefited Hulenyi in his diplomatic career. “There is not much difference between diplomacy and journalism,” he says. “We have to report.
We have to use words. We have to sell the product. You have to put it in a precise and concise way to get your message to the places that you want.”
His technical background is also useful in that latter-day diplomats need secretarial skills that were not demanded of their predecessors.
In any case, Hulenyi is not a typical or rather stereotype diplomat. “I’m not a big fan of classical diplomacy,” he concedes. “I’m project oriented and I like to have an impact on the process in order to produce concrete results. I’m not here to change the world and the Middle East peace process.
I know the limits of Slovak diplomacy.”
Hulenyi has spent half of his diplomatic career in development aid, which he says is very project oriented.
In fact he was the first director of the Slovak Department of Humanitarian Aid and Development which is similar to the Israel Foreign Ministry’s Mashav program. Mashav is a Hebrew acronym for the Agency for International Development and Cooperation.
“Slovakia [population around 5.5 million] is a small country that knows limits but also has its advantages in coming up with innovative solutions to problems,” says Hulenyi.
Like Mashav, the Slovak Department of Humanitarian Aid and Development, which was established in 2003, has been very successful in its work with Africa. It also cooperates closely with Mashav and this month is introducing a joint pilot project in Haifa to train women entrepreneurs from Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.
Last month, following the signing and ratification of a bilateral cooperation agreement on joint R&D between the Slovak Republic and the State of Israel, the two parties launched their first Call for Proposals for joint industrial R&D projects.
Slovakia, which is no less innovation oriented than Israel, has published a Did you know? book listing facts such as: ESET, one of the world’s largest IT security companies, was founded by Slovaks and is headquartered in Bratislava; Slovakia’s car industry is the largest in Europe and the Audi Q7 full-size luxury crossover SUV is constructed entirely in Slovakia; AereoMobil, a Slovak company, has created a flying car prototype which has already undergone flight tests; plus many more items of interest.
Not all ambassadors have been to Israel before taking up their postings, and those who have, in most cases came in relation to their work in another field of bilateral relations.
In Hulyeni’s case, he first came as a tourist in 2006. It wasn’t simply a matter of idle curiosity that prompts people to visit foreign countries that they’ve never seen before. Hulyeni is halachically Jewish. He was unaware of this until his mid-teens when his grandmother Cecilia, a Holocaust survivor, decided to tell him. He has no idea why she chose to do so. His initial reaction was neither shock nor surprise. It was simply “So what?” He knew nothing about Jews and Judaism. There were very few Jews in Czechoslovakia and even fewer who identified openly as Jews.
From close to 357,000 Jews before the Second World War, Czechoslovakia had 7,800 at the time of the Velvet Revolution. Many emigrated in the late 1930s, but some 78,000 were killed or died of disease in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and other camps.
Hulenyi’s grandfather had a factory plant with non-Jewish partners who together with non-Jewish employees helped him following the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. He was put to work in an essential industry and Hulenyi’s grandmother spent the war years in hiding, protected in a village by non-Jews.
Later, under the Communists, “people in the Eastern bloc continuously hid their Jewish identities.”
Hulenyi’s mother knew she was Jewish, but never spoke of it.
When he was 16 and learned of his background from his grandmother, it made no impact. “We were not taught about the Holocaust in school. It was terra incognito in Eastern Europe.”
Still, his new found knowledge about his family’s history sparked some curiosity in him and he began to read whatever he could lay hands on about Judaism, Jews and Israel.
Did Israel make an emotional impression on him in 2006? “It should have an emotional impression on everyone,” he replies.
“It’s a country that can’t leave anyone cold even if they have no connection with religion or Judaism.”
Hulenyi loves to read the works of Israeli writers especially Edgar Keret, Ephraim Kishon and David Grossman.
He read them before taking up his post a year ago, and since then has been re-reading them and enjoying them even more since gaining a new perspective on Israel. “Before, I was reading them without much knowledge of the country. When you read them the second time, you understand them much better.”
Hulenyi loves sport and is a marathon runner. He has run in three marathons in Vienna, and he and his wife, Tana, like to run in Israel when they can, although it’s sometimes difficult for them to adjust to the climate.
What they miss most in Israel is the presence of their sons Martin and Marek who have been with them on every other posting, but who did not accompany them this time because they were at university. One has completed his studies and the other is still at the Economic University of Vienna.
Hulenyi is also a swimmer and in his native Slovakia, regularly plays ice hockey.
During the time he has been in Israel, he has traveled frequently around the country and is particularly keen on music festivals be they classic, klezmer, jazz, Israeli pop or anything else. “That’s the good part of the work of a diplomat. You get a better feeling of the country when you experience this variety. It’s not just conferences.”
Foreign diplomats individually and collectively are the guests of many Israeli organizations and institutions, including the Jewish National Fund which takes them on tours of its projects and has them participate in tree-planting ceremonies.
In June, the Jewish National fund took Hulyeni, Czech Ambassador Ivo Schwarz, Polish Ambassador Jacek Chodorowicz and Deputy Hungarian Ambassador Andras Kovacs to the Yatir forest to plant trees. The countries of all four are members of the Visegrad group which is composed of countries of Central Europe that work together in areas of common interest.
The event was particularly emotional for both Hulenyi and Schwarz who happen to be good friends.
“My grandfather, who was Jewish, was a farmer who planted trees for fruit and as a hobby. He was the only member of his family who survived the Holocaust,” said Schwarz.
“Although he very much wanted to visit Israel, the Communist regime did not allow him to do so. I feel that by planting a tree in Israel, I am closing a circle.”
This prompted Hulenyi to say that his grandmother was also Jewish.
“I remember how she used to put money in the Blue Box for Israel.
Due to the Communist regime, she was never able to come here herself.
It’s very emotional for me to actually plant a tree here, something my grandmother could only do virtually.”
Hulenyi has symbolically brought his grandmother to Israel in another way as well.
“Last Folio,” a photographic exhibition by Slovakian photographers Yuri Dojc and Katya Krausova which opens on Monday at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, marks Slovakia’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union as well as well as Slovak Memorial Day for the Victims of the Holocaust and of Racial Violence, which officially is commemorated on September 9. The exhibition represents the remnants of Jewish life in Slovakia and includes a photograph of Hulenyi’s late grandmother. Even though she couldn’t come to Israel, her portrait is here.
The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference will take place on November 23 in Jerusalem.