A man of his word

Dr. Miklos Nemeth is not a name Israelis and Jews around the world are familiar with.

Dr. Miklos Nemeth 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Dr. Miklos Nemeth 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Dr. Miklos Nemeth is not a name Israelis and Jews around the world are familiar with.
People who have taken a special interest in international relations or closely followed the fall of communism in Europe might know a little bit about him. But mostly he is known by researchers who have studied the secrets behind the fall of the communist regime in East Germany and the background to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Nemeth served as prime minister of Hungary from 1988-90, just before the communist regime ended. He was the one who opened the Hungarian border to the citizens of East Germany who had been trapped there during the communist years.
These people then crossed over the Hungarian border and were finally able to reunite with their families in West Germany. Nemeth had removed one “domino piece” from the Berlin Wall, and this act led to its complete collapse.
I discovered Nemeth’s Jewish connection on the shores of Lake Balaton in Hungary. No, he’s not Jewish, but his actions that helped the Jews of the former Soviet Union during the Gorbachev years are reason enough to grant him any Jewish or Israeli award we can think of.
I met with Nemeth at the behest of my friend, Adv. Zvi Barak, who was the Jewish Agency financial director during the years when the Iron Curtain was collapsing.
We reached the shores of Lake Balaton (which happens to be an amazing tourist destination that I highly recommend).
Countless yachts were anchored along the edge of the lake and restaurants and souvenir stores surrounded the beach area.
The weather was perfect even though it was late October, and the man sitting across from us spoke fluent English and also turned out to be a clever and fascinating conversationalist.
We spent the first few minutes talking about the years Nemeth had served as prime minister of Hungary.
I applauded him for his contribution to bringing the Berlin Wall down.
Barak added that Nemeth had been the Hungarian prime minister responsible for arranging flights from Budapest to Tel Aviv for Soviet Jewish emigrants.
Nemeth accepted the compliment modestly and politely and asked to hear how the former secretary-general of World Jewish Congress Dr. Israel Singer was, and this question led us to the topic of Soviet Jewry’s emigration.
Barak told us how Singer and the WJC president at the time, Edgar Bronfman, had met with Gorbachev and this meeting had led to the opening for the first time of the gates to the Jews of the Soviet Union. Nemeth calmly asked us if we’d be interested in hearing how this meeting came to be. Since I am a naturally curious person, I immediately jumped at this offer.
Nemeth began his story by talking about Mikhail Gorbachev, who at the time was the Soviet Union’s Central Committee’s secretariat for agriculture.
Nemeth himself was serving in a senior position in the Hungarian government’s economic department and agriculture policy fell under his jurisdiction.
The Soviets were extremely jealous of Hungary’s agricultural success so they sent Gorbachev to learn Hungary’s secrets, and Nemeth was chosen to play host. They spent two weeks together, during which they traveled around the Hungarian communes.
Nemeth told us that right away he could tell that Gorbachev was from a new breed of European-oriented Soviet leaders.
Two years later, Bronfman and Singer approached Nemeth and asked him to mediate between them and Gorbachev, who by then was head of state.
They asked Nemeth to try to set up a meeting between WJC leaders and Gorbachev to discuss the situation of Soviet Jews since, unfortunately, the Soviet authorities had refused to schedule one.
Nemeth turned to his friend Gorbachev and asked him to arrange the meeting. A date and time were set, but at the last moment the Soviets delayed the meeting to cover up for the fact that they didn’t really want to hold the meeting.
But Nemeth did not give up and turned once again to Gorbachev and asked to hold the meeting in the near future.
Apparently Gorbachev still felt gratitude toward Nemeth for his wonderful hospitality when he had been the Soviet agricultural secretary, so he agreed to hold the meeting.
“Why do you want to keep all of these refuseniks?” Nemeth asked Gorbachev. “Let the people who are protesting against the Soviet regime leave.”
Gorbachev finally agreed, but stipulated that he would not allow direct flights between Moscow and Israel, since the two countries did not have diplomatic relations.
Nemeth replied that this was not a problem. Since Hungary had recently renewed diplomatic relations with Israel, Hungary would be happy to assist Jews arriving from Moscow to continue on a connecting flight out of Budapest. Malev and El Al airlines already both had scheduled flights between Tel Aviv and Budapest. This way, the Jews would not be flying to Israel directly from Moscow. Gorbachev agreed and Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union was underway.
AS IF all that he had done for Soviet Jews until now was not great enough, Nemeth went on to tell us about an attempt to halt Malev flights to Israel.
This story absolutely knocked us off our chairs.
“One day while I was prime minister, I participated in a conference that was not in the capital. I returned home that night on a flight that landed at 10:00 pm. To my astonishment, I was greeted by dozens of reporters who had been waiting for me at the airport – and I had no idea why! The conference had not been so important and the decisions taken there were not controversial in the least.
“When I asked my advisers what the issue was, they told me that due to the threat of Palestinian terror, the CEO of Malev Hungarian Airlines had cancelled the Tel Aviv-Budapest route. So I immediately ordered the minister of transportation and the Malev CEO to my offices at 11:00 pm that evening.
“When the two of them entered my office, I asked the Malev CEO what had happened.
“He replied that he’d received threats from Islamic Jihad [but he actually meant the PFLP – Y.D.] that the lives of all passengers on Malev flights around the world were in danger if the airline did not desist in transporting Jews who were making aliya to Israel.
“The Malev CEO, who was concerned for the safety of Malev passengers worldwide decided to halt flights to Israel and was in the midst of trying to find an American airline that could take over these flights.
“Before he even had a chance to sit down I told him he was fired and I threw him out of my office. Then I picked up the phone and called his predecessor who had retired and asked him to come urgently to my office; by the time he arrived, it was close to midnight.
“I told him that his retirement was hereby revoked and that I was reinstating him as the CEO of the Hungarian national airline. His first task, I told him, was to make sure that the next flight to Tel Aviv, which was scheduled for 10:30 am, would take off as planned. And it did.”
Barak interrupted here to tell us that in essence there never had been any real threat to Malev Airlines. In the end, the entire story had been a ruse by three senior Malev executives and the deputy director of Hungarian Intelligence, who had started an American company whose aim was to make some cash from the exodus of Soviet Jews.
Nemeth confirmed that Barak’s version was accurate; he said that there had been a conspiracy against him and at no time had there been any real terrorist threat.
I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of fascinating stories, but I just had to ask: What led you to make the decision to put the lives of Hungarian citizens in jeopardy just to help Soviet Jews? Without hesitating even a second, Nemeth responded: “I had given my word and I always follow through with my promises.”The author is a strategic adviser to President Shimon Peres.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.