Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Holocaust Revision, Hungarian Style.

Hungary has grown a reputation in the press as a hotbed for antisemitic political movements over the last decade. The other day my father's friend, a guy in his 80s who tends to repeat himself a lot  looked at me through a skype screen and asked "Is there a lot of antisemitism in Hungary?" He asks me this every single time I have ever met him. And for the first time I simply told him "Yes." Usually I go into a convoluted explanation of Hungarian society and history, pointing out how Hungary didn't develop a political antisemitic tradition until the 20th century. Hungary didn't match the classic Russian definition of Jews as outsiders, there were no church sponsored pogroms such as my paternal Grandparents faced. The classic Austrian Catholic antisemitic tradition was blocked by the rise of the Hungarian middle class in the 19th century, which found urban Jews and Protestant (poor) nobles from east Hungary in an alliance both linguistic and economic. So why does Hungary now face the accusation of antisemitism? Simple. Because its political leaders are ethically challenged baboons.

Back in January, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, taking valuable time from his busy schedule of building himself a personal football stadium in his backyard, announced the erection of a monument in Budapest's downtown Kossuth Square to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the "Occupation of Hungary" that led to some 700,000 Jews being deported to the Nazi death camps in a matter of months. Except, if you are Hungarian Jewish (and about 100,000 of us still are) you may not remember History in exactly that manner. As in "What occupation?" Hungary was not an occupied country, it was an Ally of Nazi Germany. This was seen by members of the Jewish community, as well as most literate Hungarians, as a whitewashing of the role of Hungary in the Holocaust. Orban said he could not discuss the matter while busy fixing the national elcctions ... er... running for re-election. Subsequently, most of Hungary's Jewish organizations chose to boycott the government's planned events and refuse its funding.

"Dialogue, not doubletalk!"
Now, originally I wrote a detailed analysis of that history, which I then decided to shelve. You can read about the monument debacle at the Wall Street Journal, the Hungarian Spectrum, the Economist, also here and here and a zillion divisive poltics.hu articles to boot. Meanwhile, Jewish organizations are taking the effort to support independent memorials, such as that prepared by the Yellow Star Houses Project. These were houses around Budapest in which Jews were allowed to reside in 1944. They are everywhere - there are two on my street and another two on the corner two blocks away, and I don't even live downtown. The corner on Andrassy housing the Polish institute was also one.

This was a Star house. Remember on June 21."
The monument planned for the memory of the "German Occupation of Hungary" has yet to be completed. From the location and the existing structures - which would not be out of place in any Greek restaurant toilet in central New Jersey - it promises to be a classic of FIDESZ kitsch. It will be located on a strip dividing two lanes of an underground parking garage exit. How's that for an honored and sanctified location.

For a while the site was the scene of protests by Jewish organizations and their supporters. Nonetheless protesters were detained by the police and the right wing news cycles went into overdrive painting the events as disruptive left wing violence. Now the monument itself is under wraps, literally, guarded by police awaiting the day - soon - when Prime Minister Orban will dedicate the completed statue.

In the meantime, the area around it has become something of a spontaneous shrine to the victims of the holocaust. People have left mementos of lost family members, or objects symbolic of those murdered in the Holocaust, marked by piles of stones in the Jewish cemetery custom.

For years I have spoken defensively when asked about "antisemitism in Hungary." I still stand by it: it is not the Hungarian people that are markedly antisemitic - it is the Hungarian political system, whether right or left, communist or "Christian", that can't exist without the rhetoric of the antisemite. It is the Hungarian political system, with its stubborn addiction to hair-brained "third road" schemes and creative economics combined with bad bookkeeping (and too many hungry poltical in-laws waiting in line to be fed) that sends the ping pong ball of Hungarian history on its eternal trip bouncing off the table. Blaming nationalism or the hangover of communism is a bluff. Hungarians have been locked out of a participatory role in politics by their ruling class ever since King Arpad arrived in the 9th century. The PR machine that keeps Orban's government going believes it can revise history in its image with an humongously ugly statue. The problem is: its image is just as ugly as that history.


Smithborough said...

I hope you're right about the lack of antisemitic history, but thinking about the level of credence many Hungarians give to the most ridiculous Jewish conspiracy theories I suspect you may be mistaken.

Anonymous said...

Wish there were more Liviu Librescus in Europe, maybe it would get it through to them not all Jews, most Jews in fact, aren't all that terrible or bad. But then again, what Librescu himself had endured took a lot of courage, a lot of guts, to do what he did, so the former here is FAR from possible, too.

dumneazu said...

There are a lt of Liviu Librescus, but like Prof. Librescu, they leave Europe.


Liviu Librescu (August 18, 1930 – April 16, 2007; Hebrew: ליביו ליברסקו‎) was a Romanian-born Israeli scientist and engineer. He was a professor whose major research fields were aeroelasticity and aerodynamics. A prominent academic in addition to being a survivor of the Holocaust, he is most widely known for his actions during the Virginia Tech massacre, in which he held off the gunman, giving all but one of his students enough time to escape through the windows