Budapest falsifies history

An encyclopedia of the Holocaust in Hungary shows how far the government has gone in trivializing the country’s role.

Jewish women are rounded up by Nazis and Hungarian fascists, Wesselényi Street, Budapest, October 1944. (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA / GERMAN FEDERAL ARCHIVE)
Jewish women are rounded up by Nazis and Hungarian fascists, Wesselényi Street, Budapest, October 1944.
 A MAGISTERIAL encyclopedia chronicling the wartime murder of some 600,000 Hungarian Jews by the Hungarian authorities in collaboration with Nazi Germany has taken center place in an exploding controversy over attempts by the current ultraconservative government here to shrug off the country’s enduring culpability for Holocaust crimes.
Mazsihisz, the biggest organization of Hungarian Jews, and many other Jewish and non-Jewish associations, have decided to boycott the country’s current, official Holocaust Memorial Year. This follows the public renunciation of the Hungarian Order of Merit this January by Prof. Randolph L. Braham, the doyen of Holocaust studies and editor of the book under review, in protest over the government’s attempts to falsify history.
He stated in an open letter that the final insult provoking his decision was the plan for commemorating the country’s invasion by the Nazis, which entailed placing all the blame for the Holocaust in Hungary on the German “occupiers,” and minimizing the role of Hungarian institutions.
Braham is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York, and director of its Rosenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies. He has authored or edited more than 60 books, including the monumental 1981 two-volume “The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary.”
His works have been used as major reference sources in war crime and restitution disputes before the courts of Canada, Germany, Israel and the United States.
His interest in the Hungarian Holocaust is far from academic. He was born in Hungarian Transylvania and during the war served in a Hungarian labor battalion; after being imprisoned by the Soviets he arrived in America in 1948.
Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, the author of the foreword to the encyclopedia, had already returned his Hungarian Order of Merit in 2012 in protest at a ceremony attended by the speaker of the Hungarian Parliament honoring a writer who was a loyal member of Hungary’s World War II far-right parliament.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the murder of three-quarters of the country’s Jewish population in Auschwitz. The protest of Hungary’s Jews also marks the first occasion that their divided, weakened and humbled community comprising mostly Holocaust survivors and their descendants dared in a display of collective will to oppose the authorities. This could deliver a deathblow to the ailing image of post-Communist Hungary, a member of the European Union, as a functioning European democracy.
The “Geographical Encyclopedia of the Holocaust in Hungary” is an exhaustive three-volume research and teaching aid chronicling the annihilation of hundreds of well-established East European Jewish communities deeply loyal to the indigenous society that enthusiastically participated in their destruction. Illustrated by many historic photographs, the work is organized alphabetically by county (Hungary, for administrative purposes, is divided into 19 counties and the capital Budapest), each section prefaced with a map and a contextual history describing its Jewish population up to and including the fateful year of 1944. That was the final and most intensive period of the Holocaust in Hungary, when an Allied victory was already imminent.
The book has been published at a critical moment. Prime Minister Vikor Orbán’s populist Fidesz government encouraged and exploited a significant swing to the right to win the April 6 national elections with a renewed two-thirds majority. It has been aggressively courting the resurgent far right by shifting all blame for the Holocaust on Nazi Germany, whose military forces were welcomed by an independent Fascist Hungarian government 70 years ago – hence the Holocaust Memorial Year.
The government has also included several anti-Semitic authors in the national school curriculum, tacitly encouraged demands by anti-Semitic nationalists for the official rehabilitation of the regent of Hungary for much of World War II, Admiral Miklós Horthy and, in the worst tradition of East European authoritarianism, has established a state ‘“historical research” body, the Veritas Institute, whose intention is to rewrite history rather than research it.
ITS OUTRAGEOUS claims fly in the face of the serious, credible research assembled in the Braham encyclopedia, which won the 2013 National Jewish Book Award in the Holocaust category. Entries in the book track the demographic, cultural and religious changes down to the smallest communities where Jews lived before their marginalization, dispossession, ghettoization and eventual deportation to slave-labor and death camps. The work provides both panoramic and microscopic views of the destruction of populations that until then formed the last significant surviving network of Jewish communities within Nazi- occupied Europe.
Data focusing on different communities are set out in a unified format, detailing the first available records of local Jewish settlement; employment patterns; synagogues and other community buildings and their ultimate fate; the names of rabbis and other leaders; shifts in the local Jewish population from the beginning until the Holocaust; references to Jewish-Christian relations; Zionist organizations; the implementation of anti-Jewish measures; the deportation of Jews; survival statistics; postwar Jewish demographics; and any memorialization of the murdered.
Braham and Wiesel’s repudiation of their Hungarian state honors has been greeted by public declarations of solidarity and support signed by such Hungarian intellectuals as the historian István Deák, philosopher Ágnes Heller and best-selling novelist György Konrád. They also warned against the lasting damage done to society as a result of the government policy of trivializing the Holocaust.
Professor Deák, a widely respected historian at Columbia University, New York, earlier stressed in the influential daily Népszabadság newspaper of Budapest, “I cannot overstate how much Hungary would gain in its international standing if, after all these years of deceitful evasions, it would at last face up to its responsibilities for the past.”
Such a development would also benefit Hungary immeasurably by freeing society of the burden of suppressed guilt that still weighs down its conscience over its shameful record within living memory. The government assertions trivializing the country’s role in the Holocaust are contradicted by irrefutable historical evidence including numerous eyewitness accounts, some preserved in the encyclopedia. Survivors still active in public life describe bloodcurdling scenes of cheerful civilians descending on the abandoned homes of their Jewish neighbors in many communities to rob them even before their owners were brutally crammed into the deportation trains by the Hungarian authorities and sent to Auschwitz.
Ignoring this evidence, the government has enacted a new constitution repudiating any legal as well as moral responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust murders. All judges as well as teachers and museum curators employed by state institutions face dismissal if they depart from the official line.
The large-scale physical destruction of Jews in this region began with the infamous mass murder of up to 16,000 civilian captives deported to Kamjanec-Pogyilszkij in Ukraine, perpetrated jointly by Horthy’s Hungary and Hitler’s Germany in 1941, and documented in the Encyclopedia, three years before the arrival of the German invasion force. A top employee of the Veritas Institute has sparked passionate controversy by describing that event as an exercise in alien administration that just happened to go wrong.
Other events during this Holocaust Memorial Year so far include the erection of a memorial to mark the German invasion, provoking relentless opposition by the Jewish community, because of the fear that it may become a neo-Nazi shrine. There are also plans for a new institution dedicated to Holocaust education under the direction of a historian well-known for her loyalty to the Fidesz party line, and whom many regard as less than sympathetic to Holocaust survivors.
All this is generating mounting safety concerns among Jews, heightened by the recent fighting in Gaza. Authoritative research recently published by the Vienna- based Fundamental Rights Agency suggests that nearly half of Hungary’s Jews are actively considering emigration because of the rise in anti-Semitism.
Theirs is the highest proportion of Jews to entertain such plans in the eight countries surveyed where Europe’s largest Jewish populations live. 
Thomas Ország-Land is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent, who writes from London and his native Budapest. His latest book “The Survivors: Hungarian Jewish Poets of the Holocaust” was published by Smokestack Press on June 1.