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The politics of Holocaust memory

22 March 2019

A search for the remains of Jews shot in Hungary in 1944 has caused upset, says Alexander Faludy


The memorial “Shoes on the Danube Bank”, in Budapest, honouring Jews killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen during the Second World War

The memorial “Shoes on the Danube Bank”, in Budapest, honouring Jews killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen during the Second World War

ON A visit to Budapest in January, the Israeli Interior Minister, Aryeh Deri, made a dramatic announcement: his Hungarian counterpart, Sándor Pintér, had given permission for Israeli specialist divers from the volunteer group Zaka to scour the Danube riverbed.

Their task: to recover remains of some of the thousands of Jews shot on the riverbank by Hungary’s Arrow-Cross (fascist) government in October 1944. A Zaka underwater forensics team had travelled with Deri to Hungary. Their work, resourced by the government of Hungary, began at once — and so did the controversy surrounding the project.

Mr Deri stated that remains would be taken to Israel for Jewish burial. This angered the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, Mazsihisz, which represents most Hungarian Jews. It said in a statement: “Our community has been disconcerted by the news of the search, especially the [planned] transportation of any traces found to Israel.” Such conduct violated Jewish ritual law and “diminishes the Jewish diaspora in Hungary”, it said.

Mazsihisz feared that removal of the bodies to Israel would inadvertently underscore an impression still prevalent in Hungarian society: that Jews were not “of” Hungary and did not belong there.

This controversy is undoubtedly about Hungary’s past. It is also, sadly, about its present.

THE American journalist Harold Meyerson has called the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, “the most overtly anti-Semitic leader of a European nation since Adolf Hitler”. I believe that this is mistaken: the dreadful genius of Mr Orbán’s anti-Semitism is its capacity to be at once all-pervasive and plausibly deniable.

In support of Mr Meyerson, it must be said that the Fidesz-government campaign against the Hungarian-Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros and his support for liberal causes has deployed classic anti-Semitic visual tropes and verbal cues. Fidesz alleges that “the Soros network” has infiltrated public institutions, orchestrated demonstrations, and hatched a plot to flood Hungary with Muslim migrants, to undermine its “Christian identity”.

In a speech last March, Mr Orbán said that, today, Hungarians “must fight against an opponent different from us . . . they are not national, but international; they do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs”. Those code words needed little deciphering.

alexander faludyLivia Láng [Leimdörfer], Alexander Faludy’s great-aunt

Despite such moves, however, Mr Orbán artfully distracts and dazzles when it comes to his attitude towards Jews. He easily wrong-foots Western journalists by mixing anti-Semitic posturing at home with voluble support for Israel abroad. Mr Orbán and the Israeli Prime Mininster, Benjamin Netanyahu, enjoy a carefully choreographed “bromance” before the cameras. Mr Netanyahu also dislikes Soros, on account of the latter’s support for Palestinian and left-wing Israeli NGOs.

In a master stroke of public-relations strategy, Fidesz has co-opted, even instrumentalised, the tiny Chabad ultra-Orthodox community in Budapest. The majority of Jews in Hungary are secular, left-liberal, and increasingly uncomfortable under Fidesz. In contrast, Chabad representatives, especially Executive Rabbi Slomó Köves, are a highly visible presence at Fidesz-party events. Chabad cultural institutions receive generous state support.

Contentiously, the Chabad congregation is the government’s partner in the development of a new national Holocaust museum, the House of Fates, directed by the revisionist historian Mária Schmidt. The displays in the House minimise Hungarian (as opposed to German) responsibility for the events of 1944, and focus disproportionately on the stories of Hungary’s small number of Gentile rescuers. The director of Yad Vashem, Dr Robert Rozett, has called it “a grave falsification of history”.

Officially, the request for Israel and Hungary to become partners in recovering bodies from the Danube came from the Chabad community. Sceptics suspect a ploy to help the Orbán government to detoxify its image.

To me, scope for rehabilitation seems limited: last week, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg issued its third injunction this year to compel the Hungarian government to desist from deploying starvation tactics against asylum-seekers sheltering in the official “transit zones” on the Serbian border. Like the 1944 executions, such behaviour is predicated on dehumanising the ethnic and religious “other”.

AMONG the remains on the riverbed are those of my Great-aunt Livia, my grandfather’s younger sister. In October 1944, Livia was a 31-year-old psychiatrist who had overcome formidable barriers of race and gender to qualify as a doctor.

Her death scarred my great-grandmother, Erzsébet, irrecoverably. The guilt of not having procured Livia a visa for the United States when there had still been time ate away at her. For 30 years, she could not speak her daughter’s name. Livia’s body is now a pawn in Hungary’s cultural politics.

The events of 1944 and their memorialisation are bitterly contested ground. One thing is certain, however: Hungary’s vigorous tradition of anti-Semitism will not be laid to rest with the bodies recovered from the Danube — wherever they are buried.

The Revd Alexander Faludy is an Anglican priest presently pursuing legal studies. He holds dual British and Hungarian nationality.

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