Last week, I joined fellow Regional Ambassadors for the Holocaust Educational Trust on an educational visit to Budapest, Hungary. Our time in the city provided a unique opportunity to learn about Jewish life before, during, and after the Holocaust, to engage with diverse local communities’ remembrance of the past, and to understand Hungary’s distinctive and complex relationship with the Holocaust.
Resistance, both past and present, emerged as a key theme throughout our trip. Discovering acts of resistance, rescue and relief challenged our misconceptions of resistance as something large-scale, physical or confrontational, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. At memorials across Budapest, we learned about courageous individuals who resisted Nazi persecution by rescuing Jewish victims. Perhaps most well know was Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who issued forged protective passports and housed around ten thousand people in extraterritorial safe houses.
Lesser-known Italian, Giorgio Perlasca, is also memorialised for his role in rescuing thousands of Jews by posing as the Spanish consul-general to Hungary, after Spanish officials had left. Despite his contentious past as a former Fascist, Perlasca saved the lives over five thousand Jews. His story exemplifies that acts of rescue are not restricted to typically ‘good’ individuals, and that anyone is capable of standing up to hatred, discrimination, and persecution.
Yet, not all acts of resistance were so extensive. In fact, many individual acts can be seen as resisting the Nazis’ attempt to dehumanise and obliterate the Jewish population. From recording experiences to maintaining one’s faith, the Holocaust encompassed many personal forms of resistance. Hungarian poet, Miklós Radnóti, recorded Nazi persecution through his poetry, up until just days before he was shot. When victims were stripped of their every possession, obtaining something as basic as a pen and paper, and finding a way to document their experience, has helped to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust are not forgotten, and that Nazis failed in eradicating the memory of the six million Jews they, and their collaborators, murdered. Indeed, the flourishing Jewish community in Budapest today – the largest in Central Europe – is perhaps the epitome of resistance: that despite the atrocities it has ensured, Jewish life continues to thrive.
Acts of resistance are certainly not confined to history. As we explored Budapest, we witnessed the ongoing resistance sustained by many dedicated people today. Beside, and in response to, the ‘Memorial to the Victims of German Occupation’ erected by the Orbán government, the city’s ‘Living Memorial’ has prospered. This display challenges the distorted narrative implied by the government which denies the responsibility of Hungarian collaborators in the murder of its Jewish citizens, overlooks the 40,000 Jewish lives lost in the unarmed forced labour service before Nazi occupation, and ignores the deep-rooted antisemitism in Hungary, such as the ‘Numerus Clausus’, enshrined in law in 1920. Since its establishment five years ago, the unofficial memorial has been subject to much vandalism. Nevertheless, the tenacity and dedication of the Eleven Emlékmű group, including daily monitoring and repair of the memorial, has ensured its longevity in resisting a misleading and inaccurate narrative.
The ‘Living Memorial’ and the rest of our five day visit to Budapest has certainly inspired our group. As Regional Ambassadors we will challenge Hungary’s narrative by encouraging others to visit the less well-known Holocaust Centre instead of the government-promoted House of Terror, and to notice Budapest’s many inconspicuous memorials and their insight into the past. We’ve returned to the UK with a renewed determination to share our knowledge, defend the truth and tackle hatred, prejudice and intolerance where we see it.
- This Regional Ambassador went on a Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassador Study Visit to Budapest in partnership with Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies’