Hungary to build monument that paints a false picture of WWII – despite Jewish community’s rejection

In the past weeks much has been said about a new government-planned World War Two (WWII) monument in Budapest’s Freedom square. The monument sparked fierce debate both in Hungary and the rest of the world; its critics say that it depicts Hungary as an angel being attacked by a Nazi-German eagle – absolving Hungarians of their active role after and during the Nazi occupation in sending approximately 450,000 innocent Hungarian Jews to their deaths.

Besides the memorial the government initiated other highly debated projects too.

The “House of Fates” memorial is being built at a Budapest railway station from which Jews were deported to Nazi death camps. The memorial will include an exhibit and education center, and Mazsihisz (The Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities)  said it has been sidelined from the project, whose “historical approach remains unknown” to the Jewish community. In early March, Mazsihisz chairman Andras Heisler withdrew from the international advisory body for the House of Fates project.

The community  and the public opinion also demanded the dismissal of Veritas Institute director Szakály Sándor, who referred to the summer 1941 deportation of about 16,000-18,000 Jews from Hungary to Kamenetz-Podolsk in German-occupied Ukraine, where the overwhelming majority were murdered, as a “police action against aliens,” when in reality it was clearly a crime against humanity.

Since the controversial events, the Jewish community has decided to stay away from the government sponsored Holocaust commemoration activities planned for 2014 (70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust). The Jewish community has decided to organise their own events to remember the victims of the Holocaust. Additionally, the Jewish community and several other organisations made a historical decision, choosing to send back the funds which the government allocated for Holocaust commemorative purposes ($1.2 Million USD) for 2014.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán postponed the construction of the monument, planned to be installed by March 19th (70th Anniversary of the Nazi occupation of Hungary), which he explained in a written letter to the community. He requested that the community return to the drawing board, after General Elections on April 6th. One might wonder why PM Orbán cannot speak about Hungary’s history during the campaign period, but I will let the readers’ imagination run wild with this thought.

In April 2014 Orbán’s led Fidesz party won the elections, and the construction of the monument started only two days later. Several hundred protesters blocked work from continuing on Budapest’s Freedom Square. Approximately 300 people angrily tore down a cordon erected by workers on Tuesday and occupied the site of the planned monument. The cordons have been broken down every morning since Tuesday, making it difficult for the construction to continue as planned.

(The Freedom Square holds symbolical importance as it’s ‘home’ for several important monuments: the Soviet monument, the Ronald Reagan statue and the US Embassy and also the recently erected, highly debated Horthy monument in the courtyard of a church by the square.)

Protesters say that “it is an extremist memorial that covers up the past with a lie, and a gesture [by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán] to the far-right”. The construction of the monument comes in the perfect time for Fidesz, the European Parliament elections are just around the corner and erecting the monument is ideal to attract more voters from the far-right, some of those potential voters of Jobbik.

As a proud Hungarian citizen, and a Jew, I am deeply disturbed by the hypocrisy and two-faced actions of this government. I don’t think Fidesz is an Anti-Semitic party and I don’t think that they deliberately caused such controversy around the monument. But, if they had true intentions for commemoration and reconciliation, they would have involved the Jewish community as well as other persecuted minorities in the discussions early on. It is key that we work on how to properly commemorate the victims, both Jewish and non-Jewish Hungarians, while acknowledging Hungary’s past deplorable role in the mass deportations and massacres during the Holocaust.

I would like to point out that this is not a blame game. No one should be blamed today for committing those horrendous crimes. Neither the Jewish community nor the “International society” accuse the Hungarian nation, but instead the state, for committing crimes during the Holocaust. It is crucial that Hungary takes responsibility for its past role in WWII and faces its past, once and for all. This means starting real and open dialogue with the Jewish community and all persecuted minorities, educating history teachers, openly admitting Hungary’s role in the Holocaust, not only in international conferences to international crowds, but also on national TV, radio and everywhere else where citizens can hear it. This is the only way to properly address the matter, otherwise the gap will only become wider and reconciliation will only get more difficult.

I commend all those who oppose the construction of the monument and will be joining them in their protest to break down the cordons. Over this Passover period we call on the Hungarian government to stop the affliction of Hungarians, be they Jews, Christians, Roma, gay or straight, and come together towards national reconciliation and peace.


About the Author
Andi Gergely, originally from Budapest, Hungary, currently serves as the Chairperson of the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS).