Yom Ha’Shoah Post #2: Hungary’s dark days

04.13.04

Today’s headlines are screaming the disturbing news of a Palestinian bomb plot at the opening of a new Hungarian Holocaust Museum. Israeli President Moshe Katsav is scheduled to attend this monumental event, which, presumably, is the terrorist’s excuse for trying to attack it:

Police arrested the spiritual leader of a small Islamic community in Budapest Tuesday during a visit President Moshe Katsav and suggested he was planning to bomb the city’s Jewish museum. Two Syrians also were detained on related charges.

[ . . . ]

Police identified the suspect as a 42-year-old dentist of “Palestine origin” and said he was the spiritual leader of a small Islamic community in Budapest. He is a naturalized Hungarian citizen.

The suspect, whose name was not released, was charged with being involved in “preparation for a terrorist attack,” said Police Lt. Col. Attila Petofi.

The irony of this couldn’t possibly be clearer.

With all the extra attention being called to this inauguration, the spotlight has fallen on Hungary’s chapter in the terrible events of the Holocaust. This year is the 60th anniversary of the deportation of nearly all of Hungarian Jews – who numbered over 600,000 – to ghettos, slave labor, and death. Few survived to tell the story.

Hungary was under Nazi occupation, which has allowed a sort of absolving of any kind of feeling of collective guilt in subsequent years. The fact that Hungary fell under another tyrannical regime – this time Soviet – after the war even further served to allow people to distance themselves from their past. Because surely Hungary suffered under both Nazism and Communism. But, as the new Holocaust Center’s spokesman, Balint Molnar, says, this doesn’t tell the whole story:

“For 60 years, there has been no debate about the responsibility of Hungarian society for the Holocaust. Under communism, everything was blamed on the Germans and a handful of Hungarian extremists. There was no discussion over the role of the wartime Hungarian authorities, the lack of resistance and the wholesale looting of Jewish property.

“The Holocaust in Hungary was not the private tragedy of the Jews,” he said. “It is part of Hungarian history, as much as the revolutions of 1848 or 1956. Even now it is hard to comprehend the profound damage that has been done to Hungarian society.”

The fact is, the vast majority of the Hungarian people stood silently by as the Jews were shipped off to slaughter. Many actively participated and helped the Nazis. There was, after all, a Hungarian branch of the Nazi party. The Holocaust wouldn’t have been possible without the help or at least tacit acceptance of the populations of the countries in which it took place.

One of my great-grandmothers was Hungarian Jewish. Her family came to Canada and, because of that, my grandfather was lucky enough to be born here. So instead of being caught up by the war, he attended high school here in Montreal, got married, had kids, went on to be an accountant and found a company, retire, get a condo in Florida, and play a lot of golf. I can hardly even contemplate what would have happened if his mother stayed put in Hungary. I’m sure he can’t either.

Hungary’s role in the Holocaust isn’t a new research topic for world historians and interested parties. It’s been studied and written about extensively. The US Holocaust Museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies even held a symposium back in 1999 to examine Hungary’s role in the Holocaust in more detail. You can listen to some of the talks online. But for Hungary as a country, the opening of the museum – the first such memorial ever in Budapest – is an important milestone. It speaks volumes about the country’s willingness to finally come to terms with its past.

And the attempt to bomb it speaks volumes about the challenges the world’s Jews are still facing today.

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