Hungary: Past Perceptions and Current Realities

In early July, I had an opportunity to attend a meeting with the Hungarian Ambassador to the U.S., Laszlo Szabo, and Consul General Istvan Pazstor. The purpose was to brainstorm about cooperation between students of Hungarian higher institutions and that of Touro’s various schools.

I listened as Ambassador Szabo voiced his frustration that his country is the victim of negative press coverage.  Anti-semitism in Hungary today, he explained, is “going away.  The anti-semitic party may not even get enough votes to get to Parliament.”  The Jewish community, the Ambassador believes, is vibrant and growing stronger by the year and yet, the news reports otherwise.

This argument holds water. Widely accepted research by the scholar Randolph Braham, The Politics of Genocide, presented a copious and well-documented account of the tragic and rapid murder of about a half million Jews in Hungary.  This occurred in less than a year of the Nazi Occupation from March 19, 1944 until February 13, 1945 when Budapest was liberated by the Russians.  For the past 75 years, this is the legacy that Hungary is left with regarding their role in the Final Solution to the Jewish Question.

Few seem to remember that although Hungary was an ally of Germany, it was a safe haven for Jews until the last year of the war.  The significance that Hungary was a latecomer to the Holocaust is nearly missed in historical perspective.  That almost no Jew was deported from that country until the Germans occupied Hungary proper until 1944 should carry some positive weight.  The Horthy Government in power at the time of the Nazi invasion, including Prime Minister Miklos Kallay, were all anti-semitic arch-conservatives. Yet, they resisted deporting Jews from Hungary to concentration or death camps.  Kallay himself ended up in a Nazi concentration camp.

Ultimately, the Nazis’ success in murdering so many Jews in so little time in Hungary became what was remembered and written about by scholars.  Indeed, they make a solid case that the high death toll of Hungarian Jews was no doubt dependent on the support Adolf Eichmann and Dieter Wisliceny received from elements of the Hungarian Government, the Arrow Cross and indigenous Hungarian Nazi collaborators.

However numerous accounts from Hungarian Jews who were saved by their Christian neighbors are nearly ignored. Yet, the facts speak for themselves.

While conducting research on the efforts of the Orthodox Rescue Committee, I found many examples of courage and collaboration between church, individuals, army officials, and ordinary citizens to save the Jews of Budapest and even the countryside, where most perished.   Each Jew saved by protective papers or in the “safe houses” has a story to tell and many have Hungarian Christians to thank. Certainly, the killing machines were available to wipe out all remaining Jews. Yet, fortunately, more than 140,000, the bulk of the Jewish population within Budapest, was saved.  Nearly one-half of the Jews of Hungary survived, much more than in many Nazi-occupied countries  This side must also be told and remembered in face of the overwhelming evil.

I do not mean to apologize for what Hungary did to its 565,000 Jews murdered during the Holocaust.  Nor am I attempting to excuse anti-semitism in any form.  Rather, I suggest that it may be time to revisit the list of “Who’s Who” on assessing blame and honor during the Holocaust.  In cross-examination, even the story of the extraordinary and highly exalted Danish rescue is peppered with traces of stain.

It was a positive experience to hear from the Ambassador himself that the Hungarian government has adopted a “zero tolerance” policy towards overt anti-Semitism.  Although the jury is still out on assessing the verdict of the role of the establishment and of part of the Hungarian people regarding the Holocaust in Hungary, it is important to look to the future as well as the past.

As the clock moves forward, it is just possible that if Jewish institutions can find ways to work together with the Hungarian State then positive changes can result.  Educational partnerships can pave the way.

About the Author
Dr. Karen Sutton is associate professor of history at the Lander College for Women, a division of Touro College, in New York City.
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