Being Jewish in Hungary

While the governments enthusiasm over commemorating the Holocaust is a welcome step, there have been reports of rising anti-Semitism in Hungary

Rabbi Shlomo Koves 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Rabbi Shlomo Koves 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
Next year the Hungarian government will hold various events to mark the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in that country.
Nazi Germany invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944. Adolf Eichmann arrived the same day and within two months deportations to Auschwitz began from the northeastern part of the country. Luckily for the Budapest community, it took Eichmann a while to get around to rounding up Jews in the capital, but by the time Soviet army tanks rolled into Hungary well over half the country’s Jewish population had been exterminated. Some estimates place the figure at in excess of 70 percent.
So, what is life like for the around 100,000 Jews living in Hungary today? And how connected do they feel to Israel? Gabor Rona certainly has a soft spot for us. “I studied in Israel, and I learned Hebrew which, I think, gives me an even stronger connection with Israel,” he says.
“You know, you go into a café somewhere, and you hear a couple of words in Hebrew, and you immediately feel a sense of closeness. That is important.”
Besides his daytime job, as a communications strategist, Rona serves as cochair of the Israeli Cultural Institute in Budapest. The latter’s stated mission is “to introduce and promote the versatility of Israeli culture in Hungary.” It organizes cultural events, promotes educational and community development programs and maintains a wide range of Hebrew language study programs.
The main official Jewish organization in Hungary is the Hungarian Alliance of Jewish communities (MAZSIHISZ) chaired by Andras Heisler.
MAZSIHISZ was also around during the Communist era in Hungary and is very much involved with organizing and coordinating next year’s Holocaust memorial events.
While the government’s enthusiasm over commemorating the Holocaust is, of course, a welcome step there have been reports of rising anti-Semitism in Hungary. Add to that the not inconsiderate matter of the radical nationalist Jobbik party, the third largest in the National Assembly, which has been described by political opponents and the press, variously, as “neo-fascist, neo-Nazi, racist, anti-Roma, homophobic and anti-Semitic.”
Even so, Rona says he does not feel threatened as a Jew in Hungary. “Of course there is anti-Semitism, but it depends on what kind of environment you live in. Personally I hardly ever experience any anti-Semitism. I maybe hear a few remarks here and there, but nothing else. The places where you see anti-Semitism is more on TV and in politics.
You might also experience that if you go to a football match. But, as a Jew, you don’t get beaten up and you don’t get comments on the bus.”
Interestingly, Rona notes that Jews are not officially defined as a minority group in Hungary. “There was a law made, I think it was in the 1990s, about defining minority groups and giving them special rights. The Jewish community was asked if it wanted to be defined as a minority and the decision was not to take that. I don’t know why – I wasn’t part of the people that decided that – but probably it was about how much they want to be Hungarian and how much they want to be Jewish. I think, in general, Hungarian Jews identify more as Hungarian than Jewish. So, we are not considered a minority and, for me, that’s not an issue.
It doesn’t bother me.”
Part of that may be due to the way the Holocaust panned out in Hungary, as opposed to the rest of Europe. “It wasn’t like the Germans came into Hungary and everywhere Jews were rounded up,” explains Rona. “It took them a while to start with the Jews in Budapest and the Soviets came in 1944 or 1945, and basically closed off the whole of Budapest.
So some families in Budapest survived the war intact.”
THE AFFILIATED Jews in Hungary, on the whole, belong to one of three main communities – Neolog, Orthodox and Chabad. All told, there are around 20 synagogues in Budapest, including the monumental Neolog synagogue on Dohany Street – the second largest synagogue in the world – which, after undergoing extensive renovations in the 1980s, is now a magnificent edifice with 40 kg. of gold worked into murals and other decorative elements around the building.
Rabbi Shlomo Koves, of the Chabad community, takes a positive view of the forthcoming state Holocaust memorial events. “I think it is a good thing, even though I am not absolutely certain that everything that has been talked about will actually take place,” he says. “But, in the current political climate in Hungary, when there is an extremist right wing party in Parliament, the fact that these events are due to take place under the auspices of the government sends out a message to the extreme Right, and to the general public, that these events are important.”
Even so, Koves would like to see more done in the realm of education. “I would like there to be more support, from the government and also from Jewish organizations, to tell the story of the Holocaust in schools throughout Hungary,” he declares. “I think we should not only be telling the story of the Holocaust, but also explaining about Judaism, and letting people know that there is still a Jewish community in Hungary, and that it didn’t die in the Holocaust.”
According to Heisler, the Hungarian government’s Holocaust-memorial related program takes in much more than just marking the 70th anniversary of the start of the deportation of Jews to concentration camps. “The Hungarian government is planning to manage the 70th anniversary by starting notable projects: synagogue renovations, a new Holocaust memorial place in Budapest and opening a Civil Tender Fund for the participants of the series of commemorations,” he says, adding that he, like Rabbi Koves, would like to see the momentum maintained after the official memorial events are over. “The question is much more about implementing the projects. Actors of the Hungarian Jewish community must note that the content of the projects that will come to effect shall be formed by proper ideology.
The historical truthfulness, avoiding the relativization of the Holocaust, naming the responsible persons and talking about the process that led to the historical cataclysm may give recognition to the projects.”
FERENC KUMIN, Hungarian deputy state secretary for international communications, says the government is keen to cooperate with representatives of the local Jewish community, to ensure the commemorative events and projects achieve the greatest impact possible. He adds that the state is providing funding to educate Hungarian children all over the country about the Holocaust.
“In order to worthily commemorate the 70th anniversary of the tragic Hungarian Holocaust, the government initiated the organization of a year-long series of commemorative events under the framework of the Holocaust Memorial Year,” says Kumin. “Preparations for the events are being carried out by a memorial committee set up in 2013, gathering representatives from public, private and civic spheres alike. The government has also established a civic fund with a budget of HUF 1.5 billion [$6.8 million], within the frameworkof which NGOs and local governments may apply for funding with relation to programs realized during the course of the year. It is of utmost importance for the Government to raise awareness for the destructive nature of totalitarian regimes of the 20th century as early as at school age.”
The commemorative program kicks off on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, when an international Holocaust conference will take place and a commemorative stamp will be issued. On April 16, members of the Memorial Committee will travel to Auschwitz-Birkenau to take part in ceremonies there, and a March of the Living event will be held in Budapest.
The Hungarian government will also spread the word on the international stage by funding a traveling exhibition about Jewish life in the country before and after the Second World War which will be displayed at official Hungarian diplomatic facilities around the world.
Koves adds that a Holocaust museum is due to open in Budapest in April, and that it is particularly poignant to mark the Holocaust in Hungary. “If you think about it, the Jewish community here is the only Holocaust community,” he notes. “There is no other Jewish community in Europe which is a local community that survived the war. This is a community with a very long history, and we are still here today.”