Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban this month addressed the annual plenary of the World Jewish Congress, which was held in Budapest. The gathering convened there for the first time out of solidarity with beleaguered Hungarian Jewry, which has been facing a very worrying increase in anti-Semitism. There have been physical attacks on Jews, blatantly anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric, and glorification of World War II fascists who bear responsibility for the wholesale decimation of Hungarian Jewry during the Holocaust. The occasion was ostensibly a golden opportunity for the Hungarian leader to speak out boldly and unequivocally against the extreme right-wing, neo-fascist Jobbik party, who are undoubtedly the main culprits in this regard, even though Orban’s own Fidesz party share some of the blame, especially when it comes to rewriting the history of World War II and the Shoah in Hungary.
Instead of doing so, Orban delivered a speech in which, while condemning anti-Semitism in general terms, he failed to name those responsible in Hungary for its most dangerous manifestations. In fact, he did not once mention Jobbik. Instead, he deflected the well founded criticism of Hungary for rising anti-Semitism by comparing the situation of the local Jewish community favorably with that of France, where “anti-Semitism sometimes claims the lives of children,” and of other places, where “bomb attacks which claim lives are launched against synagogues.”
“Nothing of this nature has so far [my emphasis] occurred in Hungary,” Orban reminded the WJC delegates, as if to suggest that as long as that was the case, either there was nothing to worry about in Hungary or they should direct their criticism to more dangerous places.
Orban’s failure to honestly confront the issue of growing Hungarian anti-Semitism did not go unnoticed or uncriticized. Shortly after his speech, the World Jewish Congress expressed regret that the Prime Minister failed to “confront the threat posed by anti-Semites in general and by Jobbik in particular,” and did not provide any guarantees that steps would be taken by his government to eradicate anti-Semitism from Hungarian politics.
James Kirchick pointed out in Der Spiegel Online International that in his speech, Orban never mentioned the still-popular Admiral Horthy, the Hungarian Regent under whose rule hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were rounded up by local police and gendarmerie and deported to the Auschwitz death camp, and to whom statues have recently been erected in Hungary. Orban preferred to attribute all the blame for the Holocaust to the Nazis and the fascist Arrow Cross party, as if Horthy and the Hungarian state bore no responsibility at all. This is one of many blatant examples of Holocaust revisionism rife in recent years. Ben Cohen in Commentary was even more critical, saying Orban’s speech was not only “a chain of platitudes from beginning to end, it was downright dishonest.”
While I fully agree with these criticisms, I want to point out a very important topic of significance both for Hungarian Jewry and the battle against anti-Semitism, which was also missing from Orban’s speech, but to the best of my knowledge was not mentioned in any analysis of his remarks. I am referring to the prosecution of Hungarian Nazi war criminals and collaborators in general, and the currently ongoing case of Laszlo Csatary in particular. During the past eight years, for the first time since the transition to democracy, the prosecution of Hungarians who committed Holocaust crimes has been on the agenda in Budapest.
In the framework of our “Operation Last Chance” http://www.operationlastchance.org/ project, which offers rewards for information that can facilitate the prosecution and punishment of Nazi war criminals, at least five official investigations were initiated in Hungary against Hungarian suspects, several of which led to legal action against them. Given the fact that no such investigations had hereto been initiated by Hungarian prosecutors since the end of Communism and that the government had supported certain steps which were part of a campaign to rewrite the history of World War II and the Holocaust in order to minimize local responsibility and guilt, these cases fulfilled an important function in the fight to preserve the accuracy of the Holocaust narrative.
Experience teaches, however, that in Eastern Europe, there is often a direct link between the attitude of a government toward the prosecution of local Nazi war criminals and the extent of anti-Semitism in local society. In Lithuania, for example, where three prosecutions were launched since independence, the failure to punish any of the defendants helped pave the way to a dangerous rise in anti-Semitic incidents and an intensification of the promotion by the government of the canard of historical equivalency between the crimes of the Nazis and those of the Communists.
In Hungary, the period during which the cases were exposed was precisely the time during which Jobbik gained considerable political support and seats in the national parliament, and anti-Semitism became a much more serious problem. This is perhaps not surprising given Hungary’s failure hereto to successfully convict and punish any of the three (out of four) suspects whose cases were entirely in the hands of the Hungarian prosecutors and courts and have been officially completed. (In a fifth case, the Australian High Court ruled that a suspect living in Perth could not be extradited to stand trial in Budapest.) In fact, the only one of the four whose case has reached trial was actually acquitted in July 2011. The acquittal of Dr. Sandor Kepiro was an outrageous verdict that exonerated this local Nazi collaborator, despite his admitted involvement in a series of massacres of Serbs, Jews, and Roma he helped organize in Novi Sad, Serbia in January 1942.
That brings us to the case of the last remaining suspect, Hungarian police commander Laszlo Csatary. He who served in the city of Kosice, today the second largest city in Slovakia, during World War II under Hungarian occupation. In the spring of 1944, Csatary helped organize the ghettoization of the Jews of Kosice and its environs, was the commander of one of the two ghettos established, and played a key role in the deportation to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp of approximately 15,700 Jews, the majority of whom were murdered there. Csatary was convicted and sentenced to death in absentia in Czechoslovakia in 1948 for his crimes in Kosice. He was later stripped of his Canadian citizenship for concealing his wartime service with the Nazis when he applied to emigrate to Canada. Csatary left Canada voluntarily following his denaturalization and disappeared to an unknown destination.
Based on a tip from an informant, I was able to inform the Hungarian authorities in September 2011 that Csatary was in good health (at age 96) and living in Budapest. But despite the legal decisions against him in Czechoslovakia and Canada, no action was initially taken against him. Only after the British tabloid The Sun confronted him publically and published photos of him in his underwear in their Sunday edition (circulation 3 million) of July 15, 2012, was he finally charged and put under house arrest. Under these circumstances, it was reasonable to assume that Csatary would finally be put on trial very shortly, even if only to erase the terrible impression created by the outrageous acquittal of Kepiro a year earlier.
In that respect, Prime Minister Orban’s speech would have been an excellent opportunity for such an announcement. It would have been an effective means to demonstrate the government’s commitment to honestly confronting Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust, and it would have clearly indicated Orban’s intention to steer his party Fidesz clear of Jobbik and its blatant anti-Semitic agenda. Unfortunately, no such message was conveyed, and a wonderful opportunity to strike a blow for justice and against anti-Semitism was squandered, leaving Hungarian Jews and world Jewry very concerned that the situation in Hungary might further deteriorate.