Archive for the ‘Holocaust’ Tag

Roots of Liberal Democracy, Part Five: The Rise of “Populism” in Hungary & Europe, 2002-18.   1 comment

Hungary at the beginning of its Second Millennium:

The good old days: George W. Bush in Budapest, June 22, 2006

The Republican George W Bush became US President in January 2001, replacing Bill Clinton, the Democrat and ‘liberal’, whose eight years in the White House had come to an end during the first Orbán government, which lost the general election of 2002. Its Socialist successor was led first by Péter Medgyessy and then, from 2004-09, by Ferenc Gyurcsány (pictured below, on the left).

Ferenc Gyurcsány and M. André Goodfriend at the Conference on Hungary in Isolation and the Global World

In this first decade of the new millennium, relations between the ‘West’ and Hungary continued to progress as the latter moved ahead with its national commitment to democracy, the rule of law and a market economy under both centre-right and centre-left governments. They also worked in NATO (from 1999) and the EU (from 2004) to combat terrorism, international crime and health threats. In January 2003, Hungary was one of the eight central and eastern European countries whose leaders signed a letter endorsing US policy during the Iraq Crisis. Besides inviting the US Army to train Free Iraqi Forces as guides, translators and security personnel at the Taszár air base, Hungary also contributed a transportation company of three hundred soldiers to a multinational division stationed in central Iraq. Following Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast of the United States in the fall of 2005, members of a team of volunteer rescue professionals from Hungarian Baptist Aid were among the first international volunteers to travel to the region, arriving in Mississippi on 3 September. The following April, in response to the severe floods throughout much of Hungary, US-AID provided $50,000 in emergency relief funds to assist affected communities.

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During his visit to Budapest in June 2006, in anticipation the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 Uprising, President George W Bush gave a speech on Gellért Hill in the capital in which he remarked:

“The desire for liberty is universal because it is written into the hearts of every man, woman and child on this Earth. And as people across the world step forward to claim their own freedom, they will take inspiration from Hungary’s example, and draw hope from your success. … Hungary represents the triumph of liberty over tyranny, and America is proud to call Hungary a friend.” 

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The Origins and Growth of Populism in Europe:

Not without ambivalence, by the end of the first decade of the new millennium, Hungary had stepped out on the Occidental route it had anticipated for more than a century. This is why, from 1998 onwards, Hungarian political developments in general and the rise of FIDESZ-MPP as a formidable populist political force need to be viewed in the context of broader developments within the integrated European liberal democratic system shared by the member states of the European Union. Back in 1998, only two small European countries – Switzerland and Slovakia – had populists in government. Postwar populists found an early toehold in Europe in Alpine countries with long histories of nationalist and/or far-right tendencies. The exclusionist, small-government Swiss People’s Party (SVP) was rooted in ‘authentic’ rural resistance to urban and foreign influence, leading a successful referendum campaign to keep Switzerland out of the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1992, and it has swayed national policy ever since. The Swiss party practically invented right-wing populism’s ‘winning formula’; nationalist demands on immigration, hostility towards ‘neo-liberalism’ and a fierce focus on preserving national traditions and sovereignty. In Austria, neighbour to both Switzerland and Hungary, the Freedom Party, a more straightforward right-wing party founded by a former Nazi in 1956, won more than twenty per cent of the vote in 1994 and is now in government, albeit as a junior partner, for the fourth time.

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The immediate effect of the neo-liberal shock in countries like Hungary, Slovakia and Poland was a return to power of the very people who the imposition of a free market was designed to protect their people against, namely the old Communist ‘apparatchiks’, now redefining themselves as “Socialist” parties. They were able to scoop up many of the ‘losers’ under the new system, the majority of voters, the not inconsiderable number who reckoned, probably rightly, that they had been better off under the socialist system, together with the ‘surfers’ who were still in their former jobs, though now professing a different ideology, at least on the surface. In administration and business, the latter were well-placed to exploit a somewhat undiscriminating capitalist capitalism and the potential for corruption in what was euphemistically called “spontaneous” privatisation. Overall, for many people in these transition-challenged countries, the famously witty quip of the ‘losers’ in post-Risorgimento liberal Italy seemed to apply: “we were better off when we were worse off”.  The realisation of what was happening nevertheless took some time to seep through into the consciousness of voters. The role of the press and media was crucial in this, despite the claim of Philipp Ther (2014) claim that many…

… journalists, newspapers and radio broadcasters remained loyal to their régimes for many years, but swiftly changed sides in 1989. More than by sheer opportunism, they were motivated by a sense of professional ethics, which they retained despite all Communist governments’ demand, since Lenin’s time, for ‘partynost’ (partisanship).

In reality, journalists were relatively privileged under the old régime, provided they toed the party line, and were determined to be equally so in the new dispensation. Some may have become independent-minded and analytical, but very many more exhibited an event greater partisanship after what the writer Péter Eszterházy called rush hour on the road to Damascus. The initial behaviour of the press after 1989 was a key factor in supporting the claim of the Right, both in Poland and Hungary, that the revolution was only ‘half-completed’. ‘Liberal’ analysis does not accept this and is keen to stress only the manipulation of the media by today’s right-wing governments. But even Paul Lendvai has admitted that, in Hungary, in the first years after the change, the media was mostly sympathetic to the Liberals and former Communists.

This was a long time ago: Viktor Orbán and Zoltán Pokorni in 2004

On the other hand, he has also noted that both the Antall and the first Orbán government (1998-2002) introduced strong measures to remedy this state of affairs. Apparently, when Orbán complained to a Socialist politician of press bias, the latter suggested that he should “buy a newspaper”, advice which he subsequently followed, helping to fuel ongoing ‘liberal’ complaints about the origins of the one-sided nature of today’s media in Hungary. Either way, Damascene conversions among journalists could be detected under both socialist and conservative nationalist governments.

The Great Financial Meltdown of 2007-2009 & All That!:

The financial meltdown that originated in the US economy in 2007-08 had one common factor on both sides of the Atlantic, namely the excess of recklessly issued credit resulting in massive default, chiefly in the property sector. EU countries from Ireland to Spain to Greece were in virtual meltdown as a result. Former Communist countries adopted various remedies, some taking the same IMF-prescribed medicine as Ireland. It was in 2008, as the financial crisis and recession caused living standards across Europe to shrink, that the established ruling centrist parties began to lose control over their volatile electorates. The Eurocrats in Brussels also became obvious targets, with their ‘clipboard austerity’, especially in their dealings with the Mediterranean countries and with Greece in particular. The Visegrád Four Countries had more foreign direct investment into industrial enterprises than in many other members of the EU, where the money went into ‘financials’ and real estate, making them extremely vulnerable when the crisis hit. Philipp Ther, the German historian of Europe Since 1989, has argued that significant actors, including Václav Klaus in the Czech Republic, preached the ‘gospel of neo-liberalism’ but were pragmatic in its application.

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the EC, delivered his first State of the Union Address 2015 "Time for Honesty, Unity and Solidarity" at the plenary session of the EP in Strasbourg, chaired by Martin Schulz, President of the EP. (EC Audiovisual Services, 09/09/2015)

The Man the ‘Populists’ love to hate:  Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission since November 2014, when he succeeded Jóse Manuel Barroso. Although seen by many as the archetypal ‘Eurocrat’, by the time he left office as the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Juncker was the longest-serving head of any national government in the EU, and one of the longest-serving democratically elected leaders in the world, his tenure encompassing the height of the European financial and sovereign debt crisis. From 2005 to 2013, Juncker served as the first permanent President of the Eurogroup.

Dealing with the case of Hungary, László Csaba has expressed his Thoughts on Péter Ákos Bod’s Book, published recently, in the current issue of Hungarian Review (November 2018). In the sixth chapter of his book, Bod admits that the great financial meltdown of 2007-09 did not come out of the blue, and could have been prepared for more effectively in Hungary. Csaba finds this approach interesting, considering that the recurrent motif in the international literature of the crisis has tended to stress the general conviction among ‘experts’ that nothing like what happened in these years could ever happen again. Bod points out that Hungary had begun to lag behind years before the onslaught of the crisis, earlier than any of its neighbours and the core members of the EU. The application of solutions apparently progressive by international standards often proved to be superficial in their effects, however. In reality, the efficiency of governance deteriorated faster than could have been gleaned from macroeconomic factors. This resulted in excessive national debt and the IMF had to be called in by the Socialist-Liberal coalition. The country’s peripheral position and marked exposure were a given factor in this, but the ill-advised decisions in economic policy certainly added to its vulnerability. Bod emphasises that the stop-and-go politics of 2002-2010 were heterodox: no policy advisor or economic textbook ever recommended a way forward, and the detrimental consequences were accumulating fast.

As a further consequence of the impact of the ongoing recession on the ‘Visegrád’ economies, recent statistical analyses by Thomas Piketty have shown that between 2010 and 2016 the annual net outflow of profits and incomes from property represented on average 4.7 per cent of GDP in Poland, 7.2 per cent in Hungary, 7.6 per cent in the Czech Republic and 4.2 per cent in Slovakia, reducing commensurately the national income of these countries. By comparison, over the same period, the annual net transfers from the EU, i.e. the difference between the totality of expenditure received and the contributions paid to the EU budget were appreciably lower: 2.7 per cent of GDP in Poland, 4.0 per cent in Hungary, 1.9 per cent in the Czech Republic and 2.2 per cent in Slovakia. Piketty added that:

East European leaders never miss an opportunity to recall that investors take advantage of their position of strength to keep wages low and maintain excessive margins.

He cites a recent interview with the Czech PM in support of this assertion. The recent trend of the ‘Visegrád countries’ to more nationalist and ‘populist’ governments suggests a good deal of disillusionment with global capitalism. At the very least, the theory of “trickle down” economics, whereby wealth created by entrepreneurs in the free market, assisted by indulgent attitudes to business on the part of the government, will assuredly filter down to the lowest levels of society, does not strike the man on the Budapest tram as particularly plausible. Gross corruption in the privatisation process, Freunderlwirtschaft, abuse of their privileged positions by foreign investors, extraction of profits abroad and the volatility of “hot money” are some of the factors that have contributed to the disillusionment among ‘ordinary’ voters. Matters would have been far worse were it not for a great deal of infrastructural investment through EU funding. Although Poland has been arguably the most “successful” of the Visegrád countries in economic terms, greatly assisted by its writing off of most of its Communist-era debts, which did not occur in Hungary, it has also moved furthest to the right, and is facing the prospect of sanctions from the EU (withdrawal of voting rights) which are also, now, threatened in Hungary’s case.

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Bod’s then moves on to discuss the economic ‘recovery’ from 2010 to 2015. The former attitude of seeking compromise was replaced by sovereignty-based politics, coupled with increasingly radical government decisions. What gradually emerged was an ‘unorthodox’ trend in economic management measures, marking a break with the practices of the previous decade and a half, stemming from a case-by-case deliberation of government and specific single decisions made at the top of government. As such, they could hardly be seen as revolutionary, given Hungary’s historical antecedents, but represented a return to a more authoritarian form of central government. The direct peril of insolvency had passed by the middle of 2012, employment had reached a historic high and the country’s external accounts began to show a reliable surplus.

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Elsewhere in Europe, in 2015, Greece elected the radical left-wing populists of Syriza, originally founded in 2004 as a coalition of left-wing and radical left parties, into power. Party chairman Alexis Tsipras served as Prime Minister of Greece from January 2015 to August 2015 and, following subsequent elections, from September 2015 to the present. In Spain, meanwhile, the anti-austerity Podemos took twenty-one per cent of the vote in 2015 just a year after the party was founded. Even in famously liberal Scandinavia, nation-first, anti-immigration populists have found their voice over the last decade. By 2018, eleven countries have populists in power and the number of Europeans ruled by them has increased from fourteen million to 170 million. This has been accounted for by everything from the international economic recession to inter-regional migration, the rise of social media and the spread of globalisation. Recently, western Europe’s ‘solid inner circle’ has started to succumb. Across Europe as a whole, right-wing populist parties, like Geert Wilder’s (pictured above) anti-Islam Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands, have also succeeded in influencing policy even when not in government, dragging the discourse of their countries’ dominant centre-right parties further to the Right, especially on the issues of immigration and migration.

The Migration Factor & the Crisis of 2015:

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Just four momentous years ago, in her New Year message on 31 December 2014, Chancellor Merkel (pictured right) singled out these movements and parties for criticism, including Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), founded in direct response to her assertion at the height of the financial crisis that there was “no alternative” to the EU bailing out Greece. The German people, she insisted, must not have “prejudice, coldness or hatred” in their hearts, as these groups did. Instead, she urged the German people to a new surge of openness to refugees.

Apart from the humanitarian imperative, she argued, Germany’s ‘ageing population’ meant that immigration would prove to be a benefit for all of us. The following May, the Federal Interior Minister announced in Berlin that the German government was expecting 450,000 refugees to arrive in the country that coming year. Then in July 1915, the human tragedy of the migration story burst into the global news networks. In August, the German Interior Ministry had already revised the country’s expected arrivals for 2015 up to 800,000, more than four times the number of arrivals in 2014. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees pondered the question of what they would do with the people coming up through Greece via ‘the Balkan route’ to Hungary and on to Germany. Would they be sent back to Hungary as they ought to have been under international protocols? An agreement was reached that this would not happen, and this was announced on Twitter on 25 August which said that we are no longer enforcing the Dublin procedures for Syrian citizens. Then, on 31 August, Angela Merkel told an audience of foreign journalists in Berlin that German flexibility was what was needed. She then went on to argue that Europe as a whole…

“… must move and states must share the responsibility for refugees seeking asylum. Universal civil rights were so far tied together with Europe and its history. If Europe fails on the question of refugees, its close connection with universal civil rights will be destroyed. It won’t be the Europe we imagine. … ‘Wir schaffen das’ (‘We can do this’).

Much of the international media backed her stance, The Economist claiming that Merkel the bold … is brave, decisive and right. But across the continent ‘as a whole’ Merkel’s unilateral decision was to create huge problems in the coming months. In a Europe whose borders had come down and in which free movement had become a core principle of the EU, the mass movement through Europe of people from outside those borders had not been anticipated. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands were walking through central Europe on their way north and west to Germany, Denmark and Sweden. During 2015 around 400,000 migrants moved through Hungary’s territory alone. Fewer than twenty of them stopped to claim asylum within Hungary, but their passage through the country to the railway stations in Budapest had a huge impact on its infrastructure and national psychology.

Is this the truth?

By early September the Hungarian authorities announced that they were overwhelmed by the numbers coming through the country and declared the situation to be out of control. The government tried to stop the influx by stopping trains from leaving the country for Austria and Germany. Around fourteen thousand people were arriving in Munich each day. Over the course of a single weekend, forty thousand new arrivals were expected. Merkel had her spokesman announce that Germany would not turn refugees away in order to help clear the bottleneck in Budapest, where thousands were sleeping at the Eastern Station, waiting for trains. Some were tricked into boarding a train supposedly bound for Austria which was then held near a detention camp just outside Budapest. Many of the ‘migrants’ refused to leave the train and eventually decided to follow the tracks on foot back to the motorway and on to the border in huge columns comprising mainly single men, but also many families with children.

These actions led to severe criticism of Hungary in the international media and from the heads of other EU member states, both on humanitarian grounds but also because Hungary appeared to be reverting to national boundaries. But the country had been under a huge strain not of its own making. In 2013 it had registered around twenty thousand asylum seekers. That number had doubled in 2014, but during the first three winter months of 2015, it had more people arriving on its southern borders than in the whole of the previous year. By the end of the year, the police had registered around 400,000 people, entering the country at the rate of ten thousand a day. Most of them had come through Greece and should, therefore, have been registered there, but only about one in ten of them had been. As the Hungarians saw it, the Greeks had simply failed to comply with their obligations under the Schengen Agreement and EU law. To be fair to them, however, the migrants had crossed the Aegean sea by thousands of small boats, making use of hundreds of small, poorly policed islands. This meant that the Hungarian border was the first EU land border they encountered on the mainland.

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Above: Refugees are helped by volunteers as they arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos.

In July the Hungarian government began constructing a new, taller fence along the border with Serbia. This increased the flow into Croatia, which was not a member of the EU at that time, so the fence was then extended along the border between Croatia and Hungary. The Hungarian government claimed that these fences were the only way they could control the numbers who needed to be registered before transit, but they were roundly condemned by the Slovenians and Austrians, who now also had to deal with huge numbers on arriving on foot. But soon both Austria and Slovenia were erecting their own fences, though the Austrians claimed that their fence was ‘a door with sides’ to control the flow rather than to stop it altogether. The western European governments, together with the EU institutions’ leaders tried to persuade central-European countries to sign up to a quota system for relocating the refugees across the continent, Viktor Orbán led a ‘revolt’ against this among the ‘Visegrád’ countries.

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Douglas Murray has recently written in his best-selling book (pictured right, 2017/18) that the Hungarian government were also reflecting the will of their people in that a solid two-thirds of Hungarians polled during this period felt that their government was doing the right thing in refusing to agree to the quota number. In reality, there were two polls held in the autumn of 2015 and the spring of 2016, both of which had returns of less than a third, of whom two-thirds did indeed agree to a loaded question, written by the government, asking if they wanted to “say ‘No’ to Brussels”. In any case, both polls were ‘consultations’ rather than mandatory referenda, and on both occasions, all the opposition parties called for a boycott. Retrospectively, Parliament agreed to pass the second result into law, changing the threshold to two-thirds of the returns and making it mandatory.

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Murray has also claimed that the financier George Soros, spent considerable sums of money during 2015 on pressure groups and institutions making the case for open borders and free movement of migrants into and around Europe. The ideas of Karl Popper, the respected philosopher who wrote The Open Society and its Enemies have been well-known since the 1970s, and George Soros had first opened the legally-registered Open Society office in Budapest in 1987.

Soros certainly helped to found and finance the Central European University as an international institution teaching ‘liberal arts’ some twenty-five years ago, which the Orbán government has recently been trying to close by introducing tighter controls on higher education in general. Yet in 1989 Orbán himself received a scholarship from the Soros Foundation to attend Pembroke College, Oxford but returned after a few months to become a politician and leader of FIDESZ.

George Soros, the bogiey man

However, there is no evidence to support the claim that Soros’ foundation published millions of leaflets encouraging illegal immigration into Hungary, or that the numerous groups he was funding were going out of their way to undermine the Hungarian government or any other of the EU’s nation states.

Soros’ statement to Bloomberg that his foundation was upholding European values that Orbán, through his opposition to refugee quotas was undermining would therefore appear to be, far from evidence a ‘plot’, a fairly accurate reiteration of the position taken by the majority of EU member states as well as the ‘Brussels’ institutions. Soros’ plan, as quoted by Murray himself, treats the protection of refugees as the objective and national borders as the obstacle. Here, the ‘national borders’ of Hungary he is referring to are those with other surrounding EU states, not Hungary’s border with Serbia. So Soros is referring to ‘free movement’ within the EU, not immigration from outside the EU across its external border with Serbia. During the 2015 Crisis, a number of churches and charitable organisations gave humanitarian assistance to the asylum seekers at this border. There is no evidence that any of these groups received external funding, advocated resistance against the European border régime or handed out leaflets in Serbia informing the recipients of how to get into Europe.

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Viktor Orbán & The Strange Case of ‘Illiberal Democracy’:

On 15 March 2016, the Prime Minister of Hungary used the ceremonial speech for the National Holiday commemorating the 1848 Revolution to explain his wholly different approach to migration, borders, culture and identity. Viktor Orbán told those assembled by the steps of the National Museum that, in Douglas Murray’s summation, the new enemies of freedom were different from the imperial and Soviet systems of the past, that today they did not get bombarded or imprisoned, but merely threatened and blackmailed. In his own words, the PM set himself up as the Christian champion of Europe:

At last, the peoples of Europe, who have been slumbering in abundance and prosperity, have understood that the principles of life that Europe has been built on are in mortal danger. Europe is the community of Christian, free and independent nations…

Mass migration is a slow stream of water persistently eroding the shores. It is masquerading as a humanitarian cause, but its true nature is the occupation of territory. And what is gaining territory for them is losing territory for us. Flocks of obsessed human rights defenders feel the overwhelming urge to reprimand us and to make allegations against us. Allegedly we are hostile xenophobes, but the truth is that the history of our nation is also one of inclusion, and the history of intertwining of cultures. Those who have sought to come here as new family members, as allies, or as displaced persons fearing for their lives, have been let in to make new homes for themselves.

But those who have come here with the intention of changing our country, shaping our nation in their own image, those who have come with violence and against our will have always been met with resistance.

Népszava's headline: "He already speaks as a dictator / Getty Images

Yet behind these belligerent words, and in other comments and speeches, Viktor Orbán has made clear that his government is opposed taking in its quota of Syrian refugees on religious and cultural grounds. Robert Fico, the Slovakian leader, made this explicit when he stated just a month before taking over the Presidency of the European Union, that…

… Islam has no place in Slovakia: Migrants change the character of our country. We do not want the character of this country to change. 

It is in the context of this tide of unashamed Islamaphobia in central and eastern Europe that right-wing populism’s biggest advances have been made.  All four of the Visegrád countries (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary) are governed by populist parties. None of these countries has had any recent experience of immigration from Muslim populations in Africa or the Indian subcontinent, unlike many of the former imperial powers of western Europe. Having had no mass immigration during the post-war period, they had retained, in the face of Soviet occupation and dominance, a sense of national cohesion and a mono-cultural character which supported their needs as small nations with distinct languages. They also distrusted the West, since they had suffered frequent disappointments in their attempts to assert their independence from Soviet control and had all experienced, within living memory, the tragic dimensions of life that the Western allies had forgotten. So, too, we might add, did the Baltic States, a fact which is sometimes conveniently ignored. The events of 1956, 1968, 1989 and 1991 had revealed how easily their countries could be swept in one direction and then swept back again. At inter-governmental levels, some self-defined ‘Islamic’ countries have not helped the cause of the Syrian Muslim refugees. Iran, which has continued to back the Hezbollah militia in its fighting for Iranian interests in Syria since 2011, has periodically berated European countries for not doing more to aid the refugees. In September 2015, President Rouhani lectured the Hungarian Ambassador to Iran over Hungary’s alleged ‘shortcomings’ in the refugee crisis.

Or that?

For their part, the central-eastern European states continued in their stand-off with ‘Berlin and Brussels’. The ‘Visegrád’ group of four nations have found some strength in numbers. Since they continued to refuse migrant quotas, in December 2017 the European Commission announced that it was suing Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic at the European Court of Justice over this refusal. Sanctions and heavy fines were threatened down the line, but these countries have continued to hold out against these ‘threats’. But Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has benefited substantially from German investment, particularly in the auto industry. German business enjoys access to cheap, skilled and semi-skilled labour in Hungary, while Hungary benefits from the jobs and the tax revenue flowing from the investment. German business is pragmatic and generally ignores political issues as long as the investment climate is right. However, the German political class, and especially the German media, have been forcibly critical of Viktor Orbán, especially over the refugee and migrant issues. As Jon Henley reports, there are few signs of these issues being resolved:

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Philipp Ther’s treatment of Hungary in his History (2016) follows this line of criticism. He describes Orbán as being a ‘bad loser’ in the 2002 election and a ‘bad winner’ in 2010. Certainly, FIDESZ only started showing their true populist colours after their second victory in 2006, determined not to lose power after just another four years. They have now won four elections in succession.

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Viktor Orbán speaking during the 2018 Election campaign: “Only Fidesz!”

John Henley, European Affairs Correspondent of The Guardian, identifies the core values of FIDESZ as those of nationalism, cultural conservatism and authoritarianism. For the past decade, he claims, they have been attacking the core institutions of any liberal democracy, including an independent judiciary and a free press/ media. He argues that they have increasingly defined national identity and citizenship in terms of ethnicity and religion, demonising opponents, such as George Soros, in propaganda which is reminiscent of the anti-Semitism of the 1930s. This was particularly the case in the 2018 election campaign, in which ubiquitous posters showed him as the ‘puppet-master’ pulling the strings of the opposition leaders. In the disputed count, the FIDESZ-KDNP (Christian Democrat) Alliance in secured sixty-three per cent of the vote. The OSCE observers commented on the allusions to anti-Semitic tropes in the FIDESZ-KDNP campaign. In addition, since the last election, Jon Henley points out how, as he sees it, FIDESZ’s leaders have ramped up their efforts to turn the country’s courts into extensions of their executive power, public radio and television stations into government propaganda outlets, and universities into transmitters of their own narrowly nationalistic and culturally conservative values. Philipp Ther likewise accuses Orbán’s government of infringing the freedom of the press, and of ‘currying favour’ by pledging to put the international banks in their place (the miss-selling of mortgages in Swiss Francs was egregious in Hungary).

Defenders of Viktor Orbán’s government and its FIDESZ-KDNP supporters will dismiss this characterisation as stereotypical of ‘western liberal’ attacks on Orbán, pointing to the fact that he won forty-nine per cent of the popular vote in the spring elections and a near two-thirds parliamentary majority because the voters thought that overall it had governed the country well and in particular favoured its policy on migration, quotas and relocation. Nicholas T Parsons agrees that Orbán has reacted opportunistically to the unattractive aspects of inward “investment”, but says that it is wishful thinking to interpret his third landslide victory as in April 2018 as purely the result of manipulation of the media or the abuse of power. However, in reacting more positively to Ther’s treatment of economic ‘neo-liberalism’, Parsons mistakenly conflates this with his own attacks on ‘liberals’, ‘the liberal establishment’ and ‘the liberal élite’. He then undermines his own case by hankering after a “Habsburg solution” to the democratic and nationalist crisis in the “eastern EU”.  To suggest that a democratic model for the region can be based on the autocratic Austro-Hungarian Empire which finally collapsed in abject failure over a century ago is to stand the history of the region case on its head. However, he makes a valid point in arguing that the “western EU” could do more to recognise the legitimate voice of the ‘Visegrád Group’.

Nevertheless, Parsons overall claim that Orbán successfully articulates what many Hungarians feel is shared by many close observers. He argues that…

… commentary on the rightward turn in Central Europe has concentrated on individual examples of varying degrees of illiberalism, but has been too little concerned with why people are often keen to vote for governments ritualistically denounced by the liberal establishment  as ‘nationalist’ and ‘populist’. 

Gerald Frost, a staff member of the Danube Institute, recently wrote to The Times that while he did not care for the policies of the Orbán government, Hungary can be forgiven for wishing to preserve its sovereignty. But even his supporters recognise that his ‘innocent’ coining of the term “illiberal democracy” in a speech to young ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania in 2016. John O’Sullivan interpreted this at the time as referring to the way in which under the rules of ‘liberal democracy’, elected bodies have increasingly ceded power to undemocratic institutions like courts and unelected international agencies which have imposed ‘liberal policies’ on sovereign nation states. But the negative connotations of the phrase have tended to obscure the validity of the criticism it contains. Yet the Prime Minister has continued to use it in his discourse, for example in his firm response to the European Parliament’s debate on the Sargentini Report (see the section below):

Illiberal democracy is when someone else other than the liberals have won.

At least this clarifies that he is referring to the noun rather than to the generic adjective, but it gets us no further in the quest for a mutual understanding of ‘European values’. As John O’Sullivan points out, until recently, European politics has been a left-right battle between the socialists and the conservatives which the liberals always won. That is now changing because increasing numbers of voters, often in the majority, disliked, felt disadvantaged by, and eventually opposed policies which were more or less agreed between the major parties. New parties have emerged, often from old ones, but equally often as completely new creations of the alienated groups of citizens. In the case of FIDESZ, new wine was added to the old wine-skin of liberalism, and the bag eventually burst. A new basis for political discourse is gradually being established throughout Europe. The new populist parties which are arising in Europe are expressing resistance to progressive liberal policies. The political centre, or consensus parties, are part of an élite which have greater access to the levers of power and which views “populism” as dangerous to liberal democracy. This prevents the centrist ‘establishment’ from making compromises with parties it defines as extreme. Yet voter discontent stems, in part, from the “mainstream” strategy of keeping certain issues “out of politics” and demonizing those who insist on raising them.

“It’s the Economy, stupid!” – but is it?:

In the broader context of central European electorates, it also needs to be noted that, besides the return of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party in Poland, and the continued dominance of populist-nationalists in Slovakia, nearly a third of Czech voters recently backed the six-year-old Ano party led by a Trump-like businessman and outsider, who claims to be able to get things done in a way that careerist politicians cannot. But, writes Henley, the Czech Republic is still a long way from becoming another Hungary or Poland. Just 2.3% of the country’s workforce is out of a job, the lowest rate anywhere in the EU. Last year its economy grew by 4.3%, well above the average in central-Eastern Europe, and the country was untouched by the 2015 migration crisis. But in the 2017 general election, the populists won just over forty per cent of votes, a tenfold increase since 1998. Martin Mejstrik, from Charles University in Prague, commented to Henley:

“Here, there has been no harsh economic crisis, no big shifts in society. This is one of the most developed and successful post-communist states. There are, literally, almost no migrants. And nonetheless, people are dissatisfied.” 

Henley also quotes Jan Kavan, a participant in the Prague Spring of 1968, and one of the leaders of today’s Czech Social Democrats, who like the centre-left across Europe, have suffered most from the populist surge, but who nevertheless remains optimistic:

“It’s true that a measure of populism wins elections, but if these pure populists don’t combine it with something else, something real… Look, it’s simply not enough to offer people a feeling that you are on their side. In the long-term, you know, you have to offer real solutions.”

By contrast with the data on the Czech Republic, Péter Ákos Bod’s book concludes that the data published in 2016-17 failed to corroborate the highly vocal opinions about the exceptional performance of the Hungarian economy. Bod has found that the lack of predictability, substandard government practices, and the string of non-transparent, often downright suspect transactions are hardly conducive to long-term quality investments and an enduring path of growth they enable. He finds that Hungary does not possess the same attributes of a developed state as are evident in the Czech Republic, although the ‘deeper involvement and activism’ on the part of the government than is customary in western Europe ‘is not all that alien’ to Hungary given the broader context of economic history. László Csaba concludes that if Bod is correct in his analysis that the Hungarian economy has been stagnating since 2016, we must regard the Hungarian victory over the recent crisis as a Pyrrhic one. He suggests that the Orbán government cannot afford to hide complacently behind anti-globalisation rhetoric and that, …

… in view of the past quarter-century, we cannot afford to regard democratic, market-oriented developments as being somehow pre-ordained or inevitable. 

Delete Viktor

Above: Recent demonstrations against the Orbán government’s policies in Budapest.

By November 2018, it was clear that Steve Bannon (pictured below with the leader of the far-right group, Brothers of Italy, Giorgi Meloni and the Guardian‘s Paul Lewis in Venice), the ex-Trump adviser’s attempt to foment European populism ahead of the EU parliamentary elections in 2019, was failing to attract support from any of the right-wing parties he was courting outside of Italy. Viktor Orbán has signalled ambivalence about receiving a boost from an American outsider, which would undermine the basis of his campaign against George Soros. The Polish populists also said they would not join his movement, and after meeting Bannon in Prague, the populist president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, remained far from convinced, as he himself reported:

“He asked for an audience, got thirty minutes, and after thirty minutes I told him I absolutely disagree with his views and I ended the audience.”

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The ‘Furore’ over the Sargentini Report:

Judith-Sargentini-portret.jpg

In Hungary, the European Parliament’s overwhelming acceptance of the Sargentini Report has been greeted with ‘outrage’ by many Hungarian commentators and FIDESZ supporters. Judith Sargentini (pictured right) is a Dutch politician and Member of the European Parliament (MEP), a member of the Green Left. Her EP report alleges, like the Guardian article quoted above, that democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental human rights are under systematic threat in Hungary.

The subsequent vote in the European Parliament called for possible sanctions to be put in place, including removal of the country’s voting rights within the EU institutions. FIDESZ supporters argue that the European Parliament has just denounced a government and a set of policies endorsed by the Hungarian electorate in a landslide. The problem with this interpretation is that the policies which were most criticised in the EU Report were not put to the electorate, which was fought by FIDESZ-KDNP on the migration issue to the exclusion of all others, including the government’s performance on the economy. Certainly, the weakness and division among the opposition helped its cause, as voters were not offered a clear, unified, alternative programme.

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But does the EU’s criticism of Hungary really fit into this “pattern” as O’Sullivan describes it, or an international left-liberal “plot”? Surely the Sargentini Report is legitimately concerned with the Orbán government’s blurring of the separation of powers within the state, and potential abuses of civil rights and fundamental freedoms, and not with its policies on immigration and asylum. Orbán may indeed be heartily disliked in Brussels and Strasbourg for his ‘Eurosceptic nationalism’, but neither the adjective nor the noun in this collocation is alien to political discourse across Europe; east, west or centre. Neither is the concept of ‘national sovereignty’ peripheral to the EU’s being; on the contrary, many would regard it as a core value, alongside ‘shared sovereignty’.

What appears to be fuelling the conflict between Budapest, Berlin and Brussels is the failure to find common ground on migration and relocation quotas. But in this respect, it seems, there is little point in continually re-running the battle over the 2015 migration crisis. Certainly, O’Sullivan is right to suggest that the European Parliament should refrain from slapping Orbán down to discourage other “populists” from resisting its politics of historical inevitability and ever-closer union. Greater flexibility is required on both sides if Hungary is to remain within the EU, and the action of the EP should not be confused with the Commission’s case in the ECJ, conflated as ‘Brussels’ mania. Hungary will need to accept its responsibilities and commitments as a member state if it wishes to remain as such. One of the salient lessons of the ‘Brexit’ debates and negotiations is that no country, big or small, can expect to keep all the benefits of membership without accepting all its obligations.

In the latest issue of Hungarian Review (November 2018), there are a series of articles which come to the defence of the Orbán government in the wake of the Strasbourg vote in favour of adopting the Sargentini Report and threatening sanctions against Hungary. These articles follow many of the lines taken by O’Sullivan and other contributors to earlier editions but are now so indignant that we might well wonder how their authors can persist in supporting Hungary’s continued membership of an association of ‘liberal democratic’ countries whose values they so obviously despise. They are outraged by the EP resolution’s criticism of what it calls the Hungarian government’s “outdated and conservative moral beliefs” such as conventional marriage and policies to strengthen the traditional family. He is, of course, correct in asserting that these are matters for national parliaments by the founding European treaties and that they are the profound moral beliefs of a majority or large plurality of Europeans. 

But the fact remains that, while that ‘majority’ or ‘plurality’ may still hold to these biblically based beliefs, many countries have also decided to recognise same-sex marriage as a secular civil right. This has been because, alongside the ‘majoritarian’ principle, they also accept that the role of liberal democracies is to protect and advance the equal rights of minorities, whether defined by language, ethnicity, nationality or sexual preference. In other words, the measure of democratic assets or deficits of any given country is therefore determined by how well the majority respects the right of minorities. In countries where religious organisations are allowed to register marriages, such as the UK, religious institutions are nevertheless either excluded or exempted from solemnising same-sex marriages. In many other countries, including Hungary and France, the legal registration of marriages can only take place in civic offices in any case. Yet, in 2010, the Hungarian government decided to prescribe such rights by including the ‘Christian’ definition of marriage as a major tenet of its new constitution. Those who have observed Hungary both from within and outside questioned at the time what its motivation was for doing this and why it believed that such a step was necessary. There is also the question as to whether Hungary will accept same-sex marriages legally registered in other EU countries on an equal basis for those seeking a settled status within the country.

O’Sullivan, as editor of Hungarian Review, supports Ryszard Legutko’s article on ‘The European Union’s Democratic Deficit’ as being coolly-reasoned. It has to be said that many observers across Europe would indeed agree that the EU has its own ‘democratic deficit’, which they are determined to address. On finer points, while Legutko is right to point out that violence against Jewish persons and property has been occurring across Europe. But it cannot be denied, as he seeks to do, that racist incident happen here in Hungary too. In the last few years, it has been reported in the mainstream media that rabbis have been spat on in the streets and it certainly the case that armed guards have had to be stationed at the main ‘Reformed’ synagogue in Budapest, not simply to guard against ‘Islamic’ terrorism, we are told, but also against attacks from right-wing extremists.

Legutko also labels the Central European University as a ‘foreign’ university, although it has been operating in the capital for more than twenty-five years. It is now, tragically in the view of many Hungarian academics, being forced to leave for no other reason than that it was originally sponsored by George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. The ‘common rules’ which Legutko accepts have been ‘imposed’ on all universities and colleges relate to the curriculum, limiting academic freedom, and bear no relation to the kinds of administrative regulation which apply in other member states, where there is respect for the freedom of the institutions to offer the courses they themselves determine. Legutko’s other arguments, using terms like ‘outrageous’, ‘ideological crusade’, and ‘leftist crusaders’ are neither, in O’Sullivan’s terms, ‘cool’ nor ‘reasoned’.

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György Schöpflin’s curiously titled article, What If?  is actually a series of rather extreme statements, but there are some valid points for discussion among these. Again, the article is a straightforward attack on “the left” both in Hungary and within the European Parliament. The ‘opposition’ in Hungary is certainly ‘hapless’ and ‘fragmented’, but this does not absolve the Hungarian government from addressing the concerns of the 448 MEPs who voted to adopt the Sargentini report, including many from the European People’s Party to which the FIDESZ-MPP-KDNP alliance still belongs, for the time being at least. Yet Schöpflin simply casts these concerns aside as based on a Manichean view in which the left attributes all virtue to itself and all vice to Fidesz, or to any other political movement that questions the light to the left. Presumably, then, his definition of the ‘left’ includes Conservatives, Centrists and Christian Democrats from across the EU member states, in addition to the Liberal and Social Democratic parties. Apparently, this complete mainstream spectrum has been duped by the Sargentini Report, which he characterises as a dystopic fabrication:

Dystopic because it looked only for the worst (and found it) and fabrication because it ignored all the contrary evidence.

Yet, on the main criticisms of the Report, Schöpflin produces no evidence of his own to refute the ‘allegations’. He simply refers to the findings of the Venice Commission and the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency which have been less critical and more supportive in relation to Hungary’s system of Justice. Fair enough, one might say, but doesn’t this simply give the lie to his view of the EU as a monolithic organisation? Yet his polemic is unrelenting:

The liberal hegemony has increasingly acquired many of the qualities of a secular belief system – unconsciously mimicking Christian antecedents – with a hierarchy of public and private evils. Accusations substitute for evidence, but one can scourge one’s opponents (enemies increasingly) by calling them racist or nativist or xenophobic. … Absolute evil is attributed to the Holocaust, hence Holocaust denial and Holocaust banalisation are treated as irremediably sinful, even criminal in some countries. Clearly, the entire area is so strongly sacralised or tabooised that it is untouchable.

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001The questions surrounding the events of 1944-45 in Europe are not ‘untouchable’. On the contrary, they are unavoidable, as the well-known picture above continues to show. Here, Schöpflin seems to be supporting the current trend in Hungary for redefining the Holocaust, if not denying it. This is part of a government-sponsored project to absolve the Horthy régime of its responsibility for the deportation of some 440,000 Hungarian Jews in 1944, under the direction of Adolf Eichmann and his henchmen, but at the hands of the Hungarian gendarmerie. Thankfully, Botond Gaál’s article on Colonel Koszorús later in this edition of Hungarian Review provides further evidence of this culpability at the time of the Báky Coup in July 1944.

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But there are ‘official’ historians currently engaged in creating a false narrative that the Holocaust in Hungary should be placed in the context of the later Rákósi terror as something which was directed from outside Hungary by foreign powers, and done to Hungarians, rather than something which Hungarians did to each other and in which Admiral Horthy’s Regency régime was directly complicit. This is part of a deliberate attempt at the rehabilitation and restoration of the reputation of the mainly authoritarian governments of the previous quarter century,  a process which is visible in the recent removal and replacement public memorials and monuments.

I have dealt with these issues in preceding articles on this site. Schöpflin then goes on to challenge other ‘taboos’ in ‘the catalogue of evils’ such as colonialism and slavery in order to conclude that:

The pursuit of post-colonial guilt is arguably tied up with the presence of former colonial subjects in the metropole, as an instrument for silencing any voices that might be audacious enough to criticise Third World immigration.

We can only assume here that by using the rather out-dated term ‘Third World’ he is referring to recent inter-regional migration from the Middle East, Africa and the Asian sub-continent. Here, again, is the denial of migration as a fact of life, not something to be criticised, in the way in which much of the propaganda on the subject, especially in Hungary, has tended to demonise migrants and among them, refugees from once prosperous states destroyed by wars sponsored by Europeans and Americans. These issues are not post-colonial, they are post-Cold War, and Hungary played its own (small) part in them, as we have seen. But perhaps what should concern us most here is the rejection, or undermining of universal values and human rights, whether referring to the past or the present. Of course, if Hungary truly wants to continue to head down this path, then it would indeed be logical for it to disassociate itself from all international organisations, including NATO and the UN agencies and organisations. All of these are based on concepts of absolute, regional and global values.

So, what are Schöpflin’s what ifs?? His article refers to two:

  • What if the liberal wave, no more than two-three decades old, has peaked? What if the Third Way of the 1990s is coming to its end and Europe is entering a new era in which left-liberalism will be just one way of doing politics among many? 

‘Liberalism’ in its generic sense, defined by Raymond Williams (1983) among others, is not, as this series of articles have attempted to show,  a ‘wave’ on the pan-European ‘shoreline’. ‘Liberal Democracy’ has been the dominant political system among the nation-states of Europe for the past century and a half. Hungary’s subjugation under a series of authoritarian Empires – Autocratic Austrian, Nazi German and Soviet Russian, as well as under its own twenty-five-year-long Horthy régime (1919-44), has meant that it has only experienced brief ‘tides’ of ‘liberal’ government in those 150 years, all of a conservative-nationalist kind. Most recently, this was defined as ‘civil democracy’ in the 1989 Constitution. What has happened in the last three decades is that the ‘liberal democratic’ hegemony in Europe, whether expressed in its dominant Christian Democrat/ Conservative or Social Democratic parties has been threatened, for good or ill, by more radical populist movements on both the Right and Left. In Hungary, these have been almost exclusively on the Right, because the radical Left has failed to recover from the downfall of state socialism. With the centre-Left parties also in disarray and divided, FIDESZ-MPP has been able to control the political narrative and, having effectively subsumed the KDNP, has been able to dismiss all those to its left as ‘left-liberal’. The term is purely pejorative and propagandist. What if, we might ask, the Populist ‘wave’ of the last thirty years is now past its peak? What is Hungary’s democratic alternative, or are we to expect an indefinite continuance of one-party rule?

Issues of Identity: Nationhood or Nation-Statehood?:

  • What if the accession process has not really delivered on its promises, that of unifying Europe, bringing the West and the East together on fully equal terms? If so, then the resurgence of trust in one’s national identity is more readily understood. … There is nothing in the treaties banning nationhood.

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The Brexit Divisions in Britain are clear: they are generational, national and regional.

We could empathise more easily with this view were it not for Schöpflin’s assumption that ‘Brexit’ was unquestionably fuelled by a certain sense of injured Englishness. His remark is typical of the stereotypical view of Britain which many Hungarians of a certain generation persist in recreating, quite erroneously. Questions of national identity are far more pluralistic and complex in western Europe in general, and especially in the United Kingdom, where two of the nations voted to ‘remain’ and two voted to ‘leave’. Equally, though, the Referendum vote in England was divided between North and South, and within the South between metropolitan and university towns on the one hand and ‘market’ towns on the other. The ‘third England’ of the North, like South Wales, contains many working-class people who feel themselves to be ‘injured’ not so much by a Brussels élite, but by a London one. The Scots, the Welsh, the Northern Irish and the Northern English are all finding their own voice, and deserve to be listened to, whether they voted ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. And Britain is not the only multi-national, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nation-state in the western EU, as recent events in Spain have shown. Western Europeans are entirely sensitive to national identities; no more so than the Belgians. But these are not always as synonymous with ‘nation-statehood’ as they are among many of the East-Central nations.

Source:Reuters/László Balogh

Above: The Hungarian Opposition demonstrates on one of the main Danube bridges.

Hungarians with an understanding of their own history will have a clearer understanding of the complexities of multi-ethnic countries, but they frequently display more mono-cultural prejudices towards these issues, based on their more recent experiences as a smaller, land-locked, homogeneous population. They did not create this problem, of course, but the solution to it lies largely in their own hands. A more open attitude towards migrants, whether from Western Europe or from outside the EU might assist in this. Certainly, the younger, less ‘political’ citizens who have lived and work in the ‘West’ often return to Hungary with a more modern understanding and progressive attitude. The irony is, of course, due partly to this outward migration, Hungary is running short of workers, and the government is now, perhaps ironically, making itself unpopular by insisting that the ever-decreasing pool of workers must be prepared to work longer hours in order to satisfy the needs of German multi-nationals.  In this  regard, Schöpflin claims that:

The liberal hegemony was always weaker in Central Europe, supported by maybe ten per cent of voters (on a good day), so that is where the challenge to the hegemony emerged and the alternative was formulated, not least by FIDESZ. … In insisting that liberal free markets generate inequality, FIDESZ issued a warning that the free movement of capital and people had negative consequences for states on the semi-periphery. Equally, by blocking the migratory pressure on Europe in 2015, FIDESZ demonstrated that a small country could exercise agency even in the face of Europe-wide disapproval. 

Source: Népszabadság / Photo Simon Móricz-Sabján

Above: Pro-EU Hungarians show their colours in Budapest.

Such may well be the case, but O’Sullivan tells us that even the ‘insurgent parties’ want to reform the EU rather than to leave or destroy it. Neither does Schöpflin, nor any of the other writers, tell us what we are to replace the ‘liberal hegemony’ in Europe with. Populist political parties seem, at present, to be little more than diverse protest movements and to lack any real ideological cohesion or coherence. They may certainly continue ‘pep up’ our political discourse and make it more accessible within nation-states and across frontiers, but history teaches us (Williams, 1983) that hegemonies can only be overthrown by creating an alternative predominant practice and consciousness. Until that happens, ‘liberal democracy’, with its diversity and versatility, is the only proven way we have of governing ourselves. In a recent article for The Guardian Weekly (30 November 2018), Natalie Nougayréde has observed that Viktor Orbán may not be as secure as he thinks, at least as far as FIDESZ’s relations with the EU. She accepts that he was comfortably re-elected earlier last year, the man who has dubbed himself as the “Christian” champion of “illiberal democracy”. Having come under strong criticism from the European People’s Party, the conservative alliance in the EU that his party belongs to. There is evidence, she claims, that FIDESZ will get kicked out of the mainstream group after the May 2019 European elections. Whether this happens or not, he was very publicly lambasted for his illiberalism at the EPP’s congress in Helsinki in November. Orbán’s image has been further tarnished by the so-called Gruevski Scandal, caused by the decision to grant political asylum to Macedonia’s disgraced former prime minister, criminally convicted for fraud and corruption in his own country. This led to a joke among Hungarian pro-democracy activists that “Orbán no longer seems to have a problem with criminal migrants”.

Some other signs of change across central Europe are worth paying careful attention to. Civil society activists are pushing are pushing back hard, and we should beware of caving into a simplistic narrative about the east of Europe being a homogeneous hotbed of authoritarianism with little effort of put into holding it in check. If this resistance leads to a turn in the political tide in central Europe in 2019, an entirely different picture could emerge on the continent. Nevertheless, the European elections in May 2019 may catch European electorates in a rebellious mood, even in the West. To adopt and adapt Mark Twain’s famous epithet, the rumours of the ‘strange’ death of liberal democracy in central Europe in general, and in Hungary in particular, may well have been greatly exaggerated. If anything, the last two hundred years of Hungarian history have demonstrated its resilience and the fact that, in progressive politics as in history, nothing is inevitable. The children of those who successfully fought for democracy in 1988-89 will have demonstrated that ‘truth’ and ‘decency’ can yet again be victorious. The oft-mentioned east-west gap within the EU would then need to be revisited. Looking at Hungary today, to paraphrase another bard, there appears to be too much protest and not enough practical politics, but Hungary is by no means alone in this. But Central European democrats know that they are in a fight for values, and what failure might cost them. As a consequence, they adapt their methods by reaching out to socially conservative parts of the population. Dissent is alive and well and, as in 1989, in working out its own salvation, the east may also help the west to save itself from the populist tide also currently engulfing it.

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Sources (Parts Four & Five):

Jon Henley, Matthius Rooduijn, Paul Lewis & Natalie Nougayréde (30/11/2018), ‘The New Populism’ in The Guardian Weekly. London: Guardian News & Media Ltd.

John O’Sullivan (ed.) (2018), Hungarian Review, Vol. IX, No. 5 (September) & No. 6 (November). Budapest: János Martonyi/ The Danube Institute.

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

Lobenwein Norbert (2009), a rendszerváltás pillanatai, ’89-09. Budapest: VOLT Produkció

Douglas Murray (2018), The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Raymond Williams (1988), Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture & Society. London: Fontana

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades. London: Hutchinson.

Marc J Susser (ed.) (2007), The United States & Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington: Department of State Publication (Bureau of Public Affairs).

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The Christian Church and the Jews: a postscript.   1 comment

A Brief History of the Relationship between Judaism and Christianity over Two Millennia.

In addition to researching the relationship between Christians and Jews in the time when the New Testament was written, and in the millenarian movements of medieval Europe, I found an article summarising the relationship since the first century, by H L Ellison. It helps to fill some of the gaps between the apocalyptic literature of the first century and the twentieth century.

At first, Christians were regarded as a Jewish sect by both Jews and Gentiles. This led to opposition and persecution of the church by the Jewish authorities, who objected to its doctrines and the admission of Gentiles without their accepting the Law. Yet since Jews were also already scattered in communities throughout the Empire and beyond, they provided Christian missionaries with an entry into the Gentile world. Since the first of these, like Paul and other apostles, were Jews, they used the synagogues, both inside and outside Judaea and Palestine as ready-made centres for evangelism. Paul regularly used the local synagogue as the starting point for bringing the gospel to a new place.

Recent archaeological evidence at Capernaum and elsewhere in Palestine supports the view that early Christians were allowed to use the synagogues for their own meetings for worship. Although most of their fellow Jews remained unconverted, many God-fearing Gentiles, who were attracted to Judaism but had not gone through the ritual of total integration into the Jewish community, became Christian converts. In fact, in spite of the growing divergence between the church and the synagogue, the Christian communities worshipped and operated essentially as Jewish synagogues for more than a generation.

Apart from the period of the Jewish wars, the Roman Empire enjoyed three hundred years of peace and general prosperity. This was known as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace. It allowed both Christians and Jews great freedom to travel throughout the Mediterranean world along superbly engineered roads and under the protection of the Roman government. Paul was able to do this until the final years of his life, but he was only the first of many missionaries. Equally, pilgrims to Jerusalem were able to travel in the opposite direction.

This was part of the reason why Paul emphasised the importance of good government, but once Christianity began to diverge, Christians lost the special privileges given to Jews. Jews were specially exempted from taking part in the cult of emperor-worship. Christians also sought this exemption, since they recognised only one God and served one Lord, Jesus Christ. But when the Church became largely composed of Gentiles, it was no longer possible to shelter under the wing of Judaism. Christians refused to offer a pinch of incense on the altar to the divine Emperor, and this was interpreted as being unpatriotic since most people saw it as purely symbolic of loyalty to the Empire. As a result, the Roman attitude to the Christians became less favourable, as they became known for their ‘anti-social’ practices in worship gatherings held now in homes, rather than synagogues. Emperor Nero (54-68) used this developing prejudice against them in order to carry out massacres against them in July 64, scapegoating them for the burning of Rome.

After the Jewish revolts against Rome (AD 66-73) most Christians dissociated themselves from the Jews. The Jewish Christians’ refusal to support the revolts caused them to be regarded as national enemies, at least within Judaea. From this time onwards few Jews were converted to Christianity, as a result. After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, Jews took strong action against Christians in their midst, and anti-Christian additions were made to the synagogue prayers. Although there were Jewish Christians throughout the second century, few of these remained in Jerusalem or Judaea. They had already moved to more northern parts of Palestine by the end of the first century. Increasingly, and especially when the church was recognised by Constantine following his conversion in 312, becoming the accepted state religion by the end of the fourth century, Christians saw in the refusal of the Jews to convert a deliberate hatred of the ‘gospel’ of Jesus Christ. Legal discrimination against them gradually increased, until they were deprived of all rights. Until the time of the French Revolution, there was no distinction between the attitude of the Church and the State towards the Jews.

In the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, the Jews were exposed to constant harassment, frequent expulsions and periodic massacres. One of the worst examples of the latter occurred, as I have written about elsewhere, during the First Crusade (1096-99) and again in 1320 when Christian millenarianism was at its most vocal and violent. The Jews were banished from England in 1290, from France in 1306, 1322 and finally in 1394. They were given the choice between converting to Christianity or banishment or a violent death. In Spain, the massacres of 1391 led to many ‘Marranos’ to accept Christianity, though often only in name. The Inquisition investigated, with all its horrors, the genuineness of their faith. Only in the Moorish Kingdom of Granada were they treated with tolerance and respect, until they were finally expelled even from there, together with their Muslim defenders, in 1492. Throughout the medieval period, contacts between Christians and Jews were minimal, except when the latter were being massacred. Those who survived these massacres were forced to wear distinctive dress and to live in special streets or districts known as ghettos.

 

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The Renaissance and Reformation enabled a few more learned Christians to revise their opinions and to adopt a more enlightened view of Judaism. But even a theologian like Martin Luther (pictured above) made bitter and despicable attacks on them. In one particularly vulgar tract, he recommended that all the Jews be deported to Palestine. Failing that, they should be forbidden to practise usury, compelled to earn their living on the land, their synagogues should be burned and their books, including the Torah, should be taken away from them. Eventually, Jews were allowed to settle in the more liberal and tolerant Netherlands in 1598, in Hamburg in 1612 and in England in 1656 during Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Commonwealth’.

From 1354, Poland was the chief centre of European Jewry. As the country grew weaker, the Jews were increasingly subjected to the hatred of the Roman Catholic Church and the hostility of the people. When, after 1772, Poland was partitioned, most Polish Jews found themselves under either Roman Catholic Austria or Orthodox Russia. Economic pressure and the Russian massacres (the ‘pogroms’ of 1881-1914) led to the exodus of nearly two million Jews from eastern Europe, mainly to the United States. Meanwhile, the ‘Enlightenment’ of the eighteenth century brought a new attitude towards the Jews throughout most of Europe. In opposing traditional Christian doctrine, many thinkers also attacked long-held prejudices against the Jews. This led to the complete emancipation of French Jews during the French Revolution (1790). By 1914, emancipation had occurred throughout Europe up to the frontiers of the Russian Empire and the Balkan States. In every nation-state, the Jews became fully integrated into mainstream society. Nevertheless, Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian Jew who came to prominence at the end of the nineteenth century, could foresee that this ‘happy’ situation was only a temporary respite from persecution, and therefore began the Zionist movement, demanding a national homeland for the Jewish people.

The first real missionary concern for Jews since the days of the early church was shown by the Moravians and the German Pietists in the first half of the eighteenth century. But there was no major advance until Jewish missions were started in the Church of England in 1809, among Presbyterians in Scotland in 1840, and in the Free Churches in 1842 throughout Britain and Ireland. This general missionary movement spread to other Protestant countries such as Norway. The mass exodus of Jews from eastern Europe to America resulted in further missionary work there. Some Roman Catholics also sought to evangelise among Jews. Most of the converts, however, belonged to the secular fringes of Jewry. This was partly due to the bitter individual, familial and collective memories of the past which meant that the majority of Jews had a deep-seated suspicion of both the motivations of the missionaries and that, even where trust existed, they remained sceptical that attitudes among the general Christian population had really changed.

Of course, Jewish people were proved to be justified in their scepticism. Political acceptance of Jews did not remove the deep-seated popular prejudice with which they were still confronted as a people. This had reasserted itself as early as 1878 when a movement of Antisemitism soon spread throughout the ‘civilised world’. Even in the United States, where the Jews had never been discriminated against, antisemitic feeling took root, often accompanying anti-German feeling in the First World War. In Germany and central Europe, it was given expression by the growth of popular nationalism and anti-communist feeling, and in the rise of National Socialism in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s, which led on to Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’, a ‘Holocaust’ (‘Shoah’ in Hebrew) in which six million Jews, a third of world Jewry, perished. Among those who tried to save Jews from persecution and deportation were many devout and sincere Christians, and their commitment has since been recognised throughout the world, and especially in Israel. Since 1939-45 and the Holocaust, Christians have tended to stress mutual understanding, the removal of prejudices and inter-faith dialogue rather than attempting a direct missionary approach, although some extreme evangelical churches in the United States have recently developed a ‘Christian Zionist’ movement, based on literal interpretations of the apocalyptic literature of the Bible and those ‘prophecies’ which point to the mass conversion of the Jews, and their return to Israel as a pre-requisite for the Second Coming of Jesus as Messiah at the ‘End of Times’. Most ‘mainstream’ churches reject these extreme interpretations, though politicians have been keen to take advantage of them, both in the USA and Israel. At the same time, especially throughout Europe, there has been a further rise in antisemitism, particularly in relation to the ongoing Arab-Israeli Conflict although Arabs, like Jews, are themselves Semitic in ethnic origin. The rise of ‘militant’ Islam has been a major factor in this.

Source:

John H Y Briggs, et. al. (eds.) (1977),  The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.  

Budapest, 1942-44: A Child Survivor of the Holocaust.   Leave a comment

Every Picture Tells a Story:

Tom Leimdörfer was born in Budapest, seventy-five years ago this year, on 15 October 1942.  In Tom’s case, this is a milestone which is certainly well-worth celebrating. After all, in the mere fifteen years between his birth and mine, he had already survived the Holocaust and had endured two Soviet invasions of Hungary, his native land, a revolution, a counter-revolution and a hair-raising escape as a refugee across the Austrian border. He had also, as a young teenager, adapted to the very different language and culture of his adopted country, England. Tom has kept and carefully recorded the family’s archives and stories from these fifteen years, perhaps most importantly in respect of the first three, for which he has, of course, few direct memories of his own. As the older Holocaust survivors gradually pass on, the role of these younger ones in transmitting the experiences of this time will, no doubt, become increasingly important. In Tom’s case, as in many, the photographs and artefacts which they cherish provide the emblematic sources around which the transmitted stories and information are woven. In the initial part of this chapter, I have left Tom’s words as his own, indicated by the use of italics.

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A picture I treasure is taken on balcony. It was almost certainly the flat belonging to my great uncle Feri and great aunt Manci. Feri was my grandfather (Dádi) Ármin’s younger brother and Manci was Sári mama’s younger sister. Two brothers married two sisters and to make matters even more bizarre, they were cousins (once removed). I expect it was Feri who took the picture on one of their family days. The five people in the picture look happy, even though war clouds were gathering and laws restricting basic human rights for Jews were in the process of enactment. It was the spring of 1939. The photo shows my grandparents (Sári mama and Dádi) and my aunt Juci aged 16. The other two smiling figures are my parents. My father (András Leimdörfer) is in uniform, looking lovingly at my mother (Edit) and having his arms around her. They were married about six months before. My father is in his proper army uniform, with three stars on the lapels.  Two years later that was exchanged for the plain uniform of the Jewish (unarmed) forced labour unit serving with the Hungarian army. He was first sent to Transylvania in the autumn of 1941. His brief few months back home resulted in my conception. In June 1942, he was off to the Russian front, never to return. The war and the bitter winter took his life in February 1943 but the family only learnt the facts four years later.

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On the same page in the old album are two more pictures of my parents. One (above) relaxing, reclining on a grassy slope in summer (1939 or 1940), though looking far too smartly dressed for such a pose. The other (right) is taken in December 1938 in Venice outside St. Mark’s Cathedral, surrounded by pigeons and snow. It was their brief honeymoon in the last winter of peace in Europe.

The father I never knew was a very good-looking and bright young man. Known as Bandi to his family, he had an Economics degree from high school in St. Gallen in Switzerland and a doctorate from the University of Szeged in southern Hungary. It was the effect of the law known as ‘numerus clausus’ (restricting the percentage of Jewish entrance to universities in Hungary) that led to his going to Switzerland for his first degree. There he formed strong friendship with three other young Hungarian Jews. One of these, Pál Katona, was head of the BBC’s Hungarian broadcast section for many years. The second, Fritz Fischer, emigrated to America. The third and his closest friend was Gyuri Schustek, who was to play a significant role in my life as well.

My parents met on the social round of the Jewish middle class in Budapest. My mother’s elder brother (also called András and also known as Bandi) was the same age as my father and also an economics graduate as well as a first class tennis player. So one day, probably at a party, Bandi Lakatos introduced his younger sister Edit to Bandi Leimdörfer who promptly fell in love with her. Their months of courtship included outings to the Buda hills and rowing on the Danube, which they both loved. Their special friends Gyuri (Schustek) and Lonci (or Ilona) were also planning to get married. My father was nearly 27 and my mother nearly 23 when they married in December 1938. Unusually, everyone wore black at their wedding as my father’s grandmother had died just before. With the increasing anti-Semitism at home and uncertainties of a possible war, they decided to delay having any children and concentrate on setting up a life for themselves in their pleasant flat in the quiet Zsombolyai street in the suburb of Kelenföld. It was also conveniently near my grandfather’s timber yard and the office of their firm of Leimdörfer & Révész, where my father also worked.

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So back to the pictures in the album. There is a small photo of a group of Jewish forced labour unit workers in the deep snow along the banks of the River Don, not far from the city of Voronezh. There is another of my father on top of tank in the snow. After much internal political strife, Hungary entered the war on the German side in June 1941 in exchange for the return of part of the territories lost after the first World War. The 2nd Hungarian Army, sent to the Russian front in the late spring of 1942, included ‘disposable’ elements like the unarmed Jewish labour brigades, conscripted socialists and trade unionists as well as parts of the professional army from all over Hungary (‘to spread the sacrifice’). Their job was to hold the Red Army on the banks of the river Don (over 2000 km from their homeland) while the battle of Stalingrad was raging. On the 12th January 1943, in the depth of the bitterest winter with temperatures of –20 to –30 degrees, the Soviet Army attacked and broke through. They took over 25,000 prisoners within days. The food supplies were scarce and a typhoid epidemic broke out. My father died of typhoid in February 1943, five months before his 31st birthday. A Jewish doctor was there, one of his brigade, and he was released in the summer of 1947. When he arrived in Budapest, he informed my mother and my father’s parents. Till then, they hoped in vain. Only one-third of the army of 200,000 returned. Hungary then refused to send any more troops to help the German cause.

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The next pictures are those taken of me as a tiny baby. Plenty were taken and sent to the front for my father. There is the one in the hospital bed with my mother, just after I was born on the 15 October 1942. Then there are some professionally taken pictures. The one in sepia by a firm called ‘Mosoly Album’ (album of smiles) shows a cheeky nine weeks old doing a press-up a sticking out his tongue. It was the last picture to reach my father and he wrote back with joy. The other baby pictures were taken in hope of sending them to the prisoner of war camp, but there was no news and no way of communication. I am amazed at the quality of these pictures, taken at a time of war. One of the photos shows me holding a bottle and drinking from it, looking up with wide eyes. This picture appeared in a magazine, sent by the photographer. I wonder if the editor realised that he was publishing the picture of Jewish baby! If so, he was taking a risk.

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One poignant picture, taken in the spring 1944, shows me sitting on a chair with a toy lorry on my knee. It is the identical pose as a picture taken of my father when he was a little boy. Clearly my mother was thinking of him when she had that taken of me. At the same time, there is a photo with me clutching a large panda. I was told it was my favourite toy – and it has its story.

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One of my older pictures shows a strikingly elegant and beautiful woman in her thirties. Born Zelma Breuer, my maternal grandmother was the object of admiration both in her home town of Szécsény in northern Hungary and in her social circles in Budapest, where she lived most of her married life. My mother got her beauty from her and the two of them were very close. There is a lovely picture of the two of them, arms round each other in the garden in Szécsény. My mother’s father was a lot older than her mother. Grandfather Aladár Lakatos worked his way up in the Post Office in Budapest to the rank of a senior civil servant. He had changed his name from Pollitzer in order to feel more fully integrated. When the laws forbidding Jews from holding such senior posts came into effect, he was nearing retirement age. So his dismissal was in the form of early retirement. Zelma’s ageing parents still lived in Szécsény, so they decided to retire there, selling the flat in Budapest and buying a substantial brick house next door to the old Breuers wattle house. With increasing threat to the Jewish population, they thought they would be safer in a quiet town where the Breuers were well-known and well liked. How wrong they were! When my father did not return from the front in 1943, they urged my mother to join them. The air was also healthier for small child, they said. My mother decided to stay in her own flat in Buda and to stay close to her husband’s family. Whatever her reasons were, it saved our lives.

The Growing Shadow of the Eagle:

To give some broader context to these early years of Hungary’s war into which Tom was born, I have been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which, in dealing with the controversial ‘hero’ of the Holocaust, also provides the most comprehensive information about the situation in the Jewish communities of Budapest and Hungary during the war. In January 1942, Hungarian military units executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied part of Yugoslavia, including 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, could grow up to be enemies. Joel Brand, Rezső Kasztner’s colleague, found out that close to a third of those murdered had been Jews. The thin pretext that they were likely to have joined the Serb partisans was no more than a nod to the government authorities who had demanded an explanation. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to lands which had once been part of Hungary until the Treaty of Trianon awarded them to Yugoslavia. The new arrivals had terrible tales of mass executions: people had been shoved into the icy waters of the Danube, and the men in charge of this so-called military expedition continued the killings even after they received orders to stop.

By the early summer of 1942, Baron Fülöp von Freudiger of the Budapest Orthodox Jewish congregation had received a letter from a little-known Orthodox rabbi in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was a cry for help, mostly financial, but also for advice on how to deal with the Jewish Agency on the survival of the surviving Jews of Slovakia. Deportations had begun on 26 March 1942, with a transport of girls aged sixteen and older. The Germans had already deported 52,000 Slovak Jews by the summer and Rabbi Weissmandel, together with a woman called Gizi Fleischmann, had founded a Working Group as an offshoot of the local Jewish Council, with the sole object of saving the remaining Jews in Slovakia. In subsequent meetings with Wisliceny, a Nazi officer, the Working Group became convinced that some of the Nazis could be bribed to leave the Jews at home. It also realised that this could, potentially, be extended to the other occupied countries in Europe. Weissmandel called it the Europa Plan, a means by which further deportations could be stopped. Rezső Kasztner and Joel Brand, working for the Va’ada, the Zionist organisation, from still sovereign Hungary were unconvinced: Hitler would not, they said, tolerate any Jews in Europe. But Kasztner agreed that fewer barriers would be put in the way of Jewish emigration, provided it was paid for, and quickly. The rabbi’s Europa Plan sounded very much like the Europa Plan devised by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, which had earlier allowed large-scale emigration from Germany to Palestine, until it had encountered stiff opposition from the Arabs and had led to the imposition of harsh quotas by the British.

In December 1942, Sam Springmann, a leading Zionist in Budapest, received a message from the Jewish Agency office in Istanbul that the Refugee Rescue Committee should prepare to receive a visit from Oskar Schindler who would tell them, directly, about those regions of Eastern Europe occupied by the Wehrmacht. Schindler endured two days of uncomfortable travel in a freight car filled with Nazi newspapers to arrive in Budapest. He talked of the atrocities in Kraków and the remaining ghetto, the hunger in Lodz and of the freight trains leaving Warsaw full of Jews whose final destination was not labour camps, as they had assumed, but vernichtungslager, extermination camps. In the midst of this stupid war, he said, the Nazis were using the railway system, expensive engineering, and an untold number of guards and bureaucrats whose sole purpose was to apply scientific methods of murdering large numbers of people. Once they became inmates, there was no hope of reaching or rescuing them. Kasztner did not believe that adverse publicity would deter the Germans from further atrocities, but public opinion might delay some of their plans, and delay was good. With luck, the war would end before the annihilation of the Jews was realised.

By this time, but unbeknown to the Va’ada leaders in Budapest, most of the politicians in Europe already knew about the disaster which was befalling the Jews. During October and November 1942, more than 600,000 Jews had already been deported to Auschwitz, including 106,000 from Holland and 77,000 from France. Newspapers in the United Kingdom, as well as in the United States and Palestine, carried reports, some firsthand, from traveling diplomats, businessmen, and refugees, that the Germans were systematically murdering the European Jews. But anyone who followed these news stories assumed that the German’ resolve to annihilate the Jews would likely be slowed down by defeats on the battlefields. Stephen Wise, Budapest-born president of the American Jewish Congress, had announced at the end of November that two million Jews had already been exterminated and that Nazi policy was to exterminate them all, using mass killing centres in Poland. In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not better anticipated.

Oskar Schindler’s firsthand information was a warning that the use of extermination camps could spread to the whole population of Poland and Slovakia, but Rezső Kasztner and the Aid and Rescue Committee still hoped that the ghettos would remain as sources for local labour. They knew of several camps, such as Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, where the treatment, though harsh, could be relieved by a supply of food parcels, clothing and bribes. The couriers reported the starvation and the rounding up of work gangs, but not the extermination camps. As Schindler’s story circulated to the different Jewish groups in Budapest, it initiated an immediate if limited response. Fülöp von Freudiger called for more generous donations to help the Orthodox Jews in Poland.The leader of the Reformed Jewish Community in the city, Samuel Stern, remained confident, however, that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. His group was busy providing financial assistance for recently impoverished intellectuals who could no longer work in their professions because of the Hungarian exclusionary laws. Stern did not want to listen to horror stories about systematic murder. Such facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner that in the months to come we may be left without our money and comforts, but we shall survive. The very idea of vernichtungslager, of extermination, seemed improbable. Why would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means to defend themselves?

The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp, while in the House of Commons, British PM Winston Churchill gave a scating adddress that was broadcast by the BBC and heard throughout Budapest. Referring to the mass deportation of Jews from France, he claimed that this tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme. Meanwhile, Jewish organisations in Budapest continued to provide learned lectures in their well-appointed halls on every conceivable subject except the one which might have concerned them most, the ongoing fate of the Jews in Germany, Austria, France, Poland and Slovakia, and what it meant for the Jews of Hungary. Two million Polish Jews had already disappeared without a trace.

In January 1943 the Second Hungarian Army was destroyed in the Battle of Voronezh. The losses were terrible: 40,000 dead, 35,000 wounded, 60,000 taken prisoner by the Soviets. The news was played down by the media and the politicians. In Budapest, news of the disaster was only available by listening to the BBC’s Hungarian broadcasts, or to the Soviet broadcasts. Under the premiership of Miklós Kállay, Hungary’s industries continued to thrive, supplying the German army with raw materials. Mines were busy, agricultural production was in full flow and the manufacture of armaments, military uniforms and buttons kept most people employed and earning good wages. Kállay’s personal antipathy towards further anti-Jewish laws lent credence to Samuel Stern’s belief that it cannot happen here.

By the summer of 1943, rumours were circulating among Budapest’s cafés of an armistice agreement with Britain and the United States. Kállay’s emissaries to Istanbul and other neutral capitals had been fishing for acceptable terms. Kállay even went to see Mussolini in Rome to propose a new alliance of Italy, Hungary, Romania and Greece against Hitler. Mussolini declined, and it soon became obvious to ministers in Budapest that the Germans would soon have to terminate these breakaway plans.

Samuel Stern knew in advance about Regent Horthy’s meeting with Hitler in late April 1943. He had been at Horthy’s official residence in Buda Castle playing cards, when the call came from Hitler’s headquarters inviting Horthy to Schloss Klessheim. Horthy was too frightened to decline the invitation, although he detested the ‘uncultured’ German leader. Hitler ranted about Kállay’s clumsy overtures to the British. As a show of loyalty, he demanded another Hungarian army at the front. Horthy stood his ground. He would not agree to sending Hungarian troops to the Balkans, nor to further extreme measures against the Jews. Hitler, his hands clenched behind his back, screamed and marched about. Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister attended the dinner that followed, and wrote in his diary that Horthy’s humanitarian attitude regarding The Jewish Question convinced the Führer that all the rubbish of small nations still existing in Europe must be liquidated as soon as possible. 

Meanwhile, terrible stories were circulating in Budapest about the actions of Hungary’s soldiers as they returned from the front with the Soviet Union. In late April 1943, retreating Hungarian soldiers in the Ukraine ordered eight hundred sick men from the Jewish labour force into a hospital shed and then set fire to it. Officers commanded the soldiers to shoot anyone who tried to escape from the flames. Neither the Hungarian press nor the Hungarian Jewish newspaper reported these deaths. Instead, the pro-Nazi press increased its vitriolic attacks on Jewish influence at home, persisting blaming food shortages on the Jews, who were falsely accused of hoarding lard, sugar and flour, engaging in black market activities, and reaping enormous war profits from the industries they controlled. That summer, Oskar Schindler returned to Budapest, bringing letters to be forwarded to Istanbul for the relatives of his Jews. He gave a detailed report of the situation in Poland and of the possibilities of rescue and escape from the ghettos.

In a letter she wrote to the Jewish Agency in Istanbul, dated 10 May 1943, Gizi Fleischmann reported from Bratislava:

Over a million Jews have been resettled from Poland. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives due to starvation, disease, cold and many more have fallen victim to violence. The reports state that the corpses are used for chemical raw materials.

She did not know that by that time 2.5 million of Poland’s Jews were already dead. On 16 May, members of the Hungarian Rescue Committee gathered around their radios and toasted the Warsaw ghetto’s last heroic stand. On 11 June, Reichsführer ss Himmler ordered the liquidation of all Polish ghettos. By 5 September she wrote to the American Joint Distribution Committee’s representative in Geneva that we know today that Sobibór, Treblinka, Belzec and Auschwitz are annihilation camps. Later that month, Fleischmann traveled to Budapest, where she visited the offices of both Komoly and Kasztner. Both had already seen copies of her correspondence, as had Samuel Stern, but his group met her case for funding with colossal indifference. They made it clear that they thought her allegations about the fate of the Polish and Slovak Jews were preposterous. She also informed Kasztner that Dieter Wisliceny, the ss man in charge of the deportations from Slovakia, had told her of a dinner he had attended on Swabian Hill with a senior functionary from the Hungarian prime minister’s office. They had discussed the extermination of the Hungarian Jews. After her visit, Kasztner wrote to Nathan Schwalb of the Hechalutz, the international Zionist youth movement:

The gas chambers in Poland have already consumed the bodies of more than half a million Jews. There are horrible, unbelievable photographs of starving children, of dead, emaciated bodies on the streets of the Warsaw ghetto.

Kasztner raised the money for Gizi Fleischmann to offer a bribe to Wisliceny in exchange for the lives of the remaining Slovak Jews. Whether it contributed to the two-year hiatus in murdering the Slovak Jews is still disputed, but there is no doubt that Fleischmann and Rabbi Weissmandel believed it had.

The late autumn of 1943 was spectacular with its bright colours: the old chestnut trees along the Danube turning crimson and rich sienna browns, the oranges of the dogwood trees rising up Gellert Hill. Musicians still played in the outdoor cafés and young women paraded in their winter furs. Late in the evenings there was frost in the air. Throughout that autumn and winter, many inside the Hungarian government sought ways of quitting the war and starting negotiations with the Allies. On 24 January, 1944, the chief of the Hungarian general staff met with Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and suggested that Hungarian forces might withdraw from the Eastern Front. The Germans had been aware of Hungary’s vacillations about the war, its fear of Allied attacks, and its appeal to the British not to bomb  Hungary while it was reassessing its position. Several more Hungarian emissaries had approached both British and American agencies, including the OSS in Turkey, and offered separate peace agreements. Of course, Hitler had got to know about all these overtures, and had called Kállay a swine for his double-dealing.

Admiral Horthy followed suit within a month in a formal letter to Hitler, suggesting the withdrawal of the Hungarian troops to aid in the defence of the Carpathians. The soldiers would perform better if they were defending their homeland, he said. He also stressed his anxiety about Budapest, asking that German troops not be stationed too close to the capital, since they would attract heavy air-raids. Hitler thought Horthy’s plan was as ridiculous as the old man himself, and summoned him to Schloss Klessheim again for a meeting on 17 March 1944, a Friday. Hitler insisted that Jewish influence in Hungary had to cease, and that the German Army would occupy the country to ensure this happened. If Horthy did not agree to the occupation, or if he ordered resistance, Germany would launch a full-scale invasion, enlisting the support of the surrounding axis allies, leading to a dismemberment of Hungary back to its Trianon Treaty borders. This was Horthy’s worst nightmare, so he agreed to the occupation and the replacement of Kállay with a prime minister more to Hitler’s liking. The Admiral could remain as Regent, nominally in charge, but with a German Reich plenipotentiary in charge. Horthy also agreed to supply a hundred thousand Jewish workers to work in the armaments industry under Albert Speer.

Over the winter months of 1943-44, many of the labour camps had become death sentences for the underfed and poorly clothed Jews. In some Hungarian army labour units the brutality meted out to Jews was comparable to Nazi tactics in occupied Poland. In one division, sergeants doused Jews with water and cheered as their victims turned into ice sculptures. In another camp, officers ordered men in the work detail to climb trees and shout I am a dirty Jew as they leapt from branch to branch, the officers taking pot-shots at them. Of the fifty thousand men in the labour companies, only about seven thousand survived.

Secondary Source:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable.

Britain’s Refugee Record: Myth or Reality?   Leave a comment

Over the past year, as the tide of inter-continental migration has battered onto Europe’s eastern shores and frontiers, not least at Hungary’s new steel curtain, government and opposition spokesmen in Britain have made much of Britain’s proud record of coming to the aid of refugees, largely as means of defending the country over its failure to rescue those in the Eastern Mediterranean who would rather risk their lives crossing from Turkey than go without hope for themselves and their families in the overcrowded, makeshift camps on the borders of Iraq and Syria. Today, 15 March, marks the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the civil war in Syria, so that the refugee problem in the region has now lasted almost as long as that experienced in Eastern Europe in the Second World War.

Of course, Europe’s refugee problems of the inter-war period did not begin in 1939. Already in 1936 there were large numbers of refugees from fascism leaving both Spain and Germany. The capacity of the British people to welcome children, in particular, from the Basque country and Nazi Germany, in the wake of the bombing of Guernica and Kiristallnacht in 1938, has become legendary, the efforts of the Quakers and individuals like Nicholas Winton in the transport and settlement of the young ones especially so. This was at a time when Britain was experiencing its own internal migration crisis, with millions of miners and shipyard workers moving south and east from valleys and estuaries where traditional industries had suddenly come to a halt. Only from 1938, with rearmament, did the human exodus, bringing half a million workers and their families from south Wales alone since 1920, begin to slow. Government support for the distressed areas, which it renamed ‘Special Areas’ in 1936, had been grudging, and it was only at that time that they began to support the migration of whole families and communities which had been underway for more than a decade, organised by the migrants themselves.

Then when we look at what the British governments themselves did to help the Jewish populations to reach safety in Palestine, a very different story emerges, and one which present-day ministers would do well to remember. I’ve been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which gives a quite comprehensive survey of the organised attempts at exodus by those trying to escape from the holocaust which began engulfing them as soon as the Nazis invaded Poland. Their determination to reach their ancient homeland had been articulated by the Budapest-born founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, six-score years ago, when he wrote in The Jewish State in 1896:

Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home. The very name of Palestine would attract our people with a force of marvelous potency… We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral state remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence… We should form a guard of honor about these sanctuaries, answering for the fulfillment of this duty with our existence. This guard of honor would be the great symbol of the solution of the Jewish question after eighteen centuries of Jewish suffering.  

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Above: Hungary and Central-Eastern Europe in the Second World War

Rezső Kasztner was born a decade later (1906), in Kolozsvár, then in Hungary, now Cluj in Romania, as it was after its annexation after the Paris Peace Treaties of 1918-21 until its re-awarding to Hungary by Hitler in 1938. The idea that the Jews one day return to Palestine attracted Kasztner to Zionism as a young teenager, even before he had read Herzel’s writing. When he did, he could accept Herzel’s foretelling of the disasters of National Socialism under Hitler because he had also read Mein Kampf, in its first German edition. Like David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive in Palestine, Kasztner realised that if Hitler came to power, the Jewish people would bear the brunt of the war which would follow.

Map of the Sykes–Picot agreement, which was signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot on May 8, 1916.

Above: The Division of The Middle East by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Palestine had been the one sure destination for Jews fleeing from Europe, but, as German enthusiasm for Jewish emigration grew in the early years of the Reich, so did Arab resistance to Jewish immigration. The sporadic riots that began in 1936 soon culminated in a full-scale Arab rebellion against British rule over Jewish immigration. About six hundred Jews and some British soldiers were killed, with thousands more wounded. The British government’s priority was to protect the Suez Canal, the jugular vein of the Empire, as it was described by contemporaries, was determined to appease the Islamic in its north African colonies, and so commissioned a  White Paper on a new policy for Palestine to replace that determined by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement. Its effect was to limit Jewish immigration to twelve thousand people per year. Peace with the Arabs was to be of greater strategic importance as world war threatened than peace with the small number of Jewish settlers in Palestine and the powerless, if still wealthy, Jewish population of Europe. The British authorities soon amended the numbers to a maximum of a hundred thousand immigrants over five years, to include ‘refugees’ who arrived without proper entry certificates, but after 1941 the Palestinian Arabs would have the right to veto any further Jewish immigration.

Compared with the numbers under threat from the tidal waves of anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe, in Hungary from the enacting of a stronger version of its first Anti-Jewish Law in 1938, the numbers to be admitted to Palestine by the British were pitifully small. In the pages of Új Kelét (New East), Kasztner’s Hungarian-Jewish newspaper in Kolozsvár, he thundered out the headline Perfidious Albion. In exchange for political expediency, Britain had shut the gate to the only land still open to the Jews. Winston Churchill, still in the ‘wilderness’, accused the British government of setting aside solid engagements for the sake of a quiet life. He charged it with giving in to threats from an Arab population that had been increasing at a rate faster than Jewish immigration:

We are now asked to submit to an agitation which is fed with foreign money and ceaselessly inflamed by Nazi and fascist propaganda.

Refugees from Poland, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany itself poured over the borders of both Hungary and Transylvania, with only the clothes they were wearing. There were no rules to control the fleeing Jews, though some of the border guards made it difficult even for ethnic Hungarian Jews, insisting that they should recite to prove that they were ‘genuine’ Christian refugees, and not ‘just Jews’. Despite specific prohibitions from the Budapest government on the provision of aid to the refugees, Kasztner set up an information centre in Kolozsvár. He elicited help from local charitable organisations, providing temporary accommodation, food and clothing, but his main concern was to provide the Jewish refugees with safe destinations. He sent telegrams to the Jewish Agency in Tel Aviv, asking for help and funds to buy passages on ships and to pay bribes to local officials. The Agency’s staff were restricted by the British administration as to how far they could assist, especially in respect of how many visas they could issue according to the imposed limits. These were never enough, so they secretly began encouraging illegal immigration. The Agency had already set up an office in Geneva to monitor the situation in Europe, and it soon began to help with both legal and illegal migrants. Following the British White Paper, all Yishuv leaders had been supporting illegal immigration to Palestine, or aliya bet, as it was known.

To help Jews escape from the increasingly dangerous situation in Europe, the Jewish Agency paid the going rate for the passage of forty-five ships between 1937 and 1939. In 1939 alone, thirty ships, legal and illegal, sailed through the Black Sea ports through the Bosphorus and on to Palestine. Kastner obtained exit visas from the Romanian government, despite the efforts of the British to persuade Romanian  officials not to allow the departure of the overcrowded boats. He was certain that the British would have to allow the refugees to land once they arrived at the harbour in Haifa. Of course, both officials and shipowners were willing to take part in this lucrative trade in ‘people smuggling’, selling passages from the Romanian port of Constanta to Istanbul and then on to Palestine. Refugees set out down the Danube, from ports on the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey.

Once the immigration quota for 1941 was filled, the British began their blockade of Palestine, fearing an all-out Arab revolt in the Middle East and North Africa. Several ships carrying illegal immigrants were apprehended by the Royal Navy. Conditions on these ships were so squalid that some people who had escaped from Nazi persecution at home now opted for suicide by water. The refugees who managed to reach Palestine were herded into detention camps. Those with valid passports were sent back to their countries of origin, where many were later murdered by the Nazis, or deported to concentration camps. A few thousand had been sent to Mauritius in late October 1940, and several thousand had ended up in Shanghai, where no-one had even thought of setting immigration limits, and where full-scale war did not break out until after Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

On one ship, the Atlantic, a group of Jewish saboteurs, members of the Haganah (the Jewish ‘underground’ whose members undertook illegal operations, including immigration), decided to disable the vessel so that the British could not force it to leave Palestinian waters. Inadvertently, they  caused an explosion which killed 260 people on board, many of them women and children. To make sure that would-be immigrants were aware of the dangers facing them on a sea crossing, the BBC reported the casualties, the deaths, and the redirecting of ships. Not wishing to incite the sympathy of the British people for the plight of the refugees, however, the officials made sure that the details were only included in broadcasts to the Balkans and eastern Europe.

Kasztner arrived in Budapest in the Spring of 1941. He continued to focus on his political contacts, working to gain sympathy for renewed emigration to Palestine even though Britain kept the borders and ports closed. Jewish emigration was not expressly forbidden by Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler until late October 1941. The Palestine Office was on Erzsébet Boulevard, near the National Theatre. When Kasztner first went there, he met a group of young Zionist pioneers, or halutzim, from Slovakia, who wanted everyone to hear about the brutal deportations they had witnessed. Only a few young people tried to escape: they had heard stories from the Polish refugees, and they suspected a fate that their parents refused to believe. They hid in closets, cellars, and lofts, or in bushes along the riverbanks. They found the Hungarian border during the night.

In the Palestine Office, desperate people waited to hear if they were on the lists of those who had been chosen for the few Palestine entry tickets that were still available. Kasztner wondered if there would be more certificates, now that most of the offices in other countries had closed, or, as was the case in Warsaw, been closed by the Germans. Surely the British would open the borders to Palestine now that Europe was in flames? 

Not until the case of the ss Struma, however, did British policy toward Jewish refugees receive worldwide attention. An old, marginally refurnished, British-built yacht, the Struma had set out from Constanta in Romania in December 1941 with 769 Jewish refugees on board. The Greek shipowner had sold tickets for the voyage at exorbitant prices, aware that few ships would risk the voyage and that, for most of the passengers, the Struma offered their last, best chance to survive. The vessel arrived at Istanbul with a broken engine, the passengers crowded together with barely enough room to sit and no fresh water, food, sanitation, or medicine for the ailing children or those suffering from dysentery.

The ship remained in Istanbul for two months, during which time no-one was allowed to disembark or board, though the Jewish Agency succeeded in distributing food and water. The British government had put pressure on the Turks to block the ship’s entry and to prevent it leaving for Palestine. There was some discussion about lifting the women and children off the ship, followed by an exchange of cables involving the Foreign Office, the Turks, the Jewish Agency and the governments of the USA, Romania and the Reich. Eventually, the ship was towed out of the harbour. An explosion ripped open the hull, and the ship sank. There was a solitary survivor. Whether the explosion was the result of a bomb on board or a Soviet torpedo, all those familiar with the story at the time blamed Britain’s intransigence. On the walls of the Jewish areas of Palestine, posters appeared bearing the photograph of Sir Harold MacMichael and the words:

Known as High Commissioner for Palestine, WANTED FOR THE MURDER of 800 refugees.

Great Britain had declared war on Hungary on 7 December 1941, the same day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Tied to Japan by the Tri-Power Act, Hitler had declared war on the United States on 11 December. The next day, the American ambassador departed from Budapest, as the US no longer regarded Hungary as an independent nation, though it did not formally declare war until June 1942. The fate of Hungary’s Jews, and those of the rest of Europe, was then effectively in the hands of the Third Reich, as was the fate of Hungary itself. Nevertheless, by February 1942, an anti-Fascist front in the guise of the the Hungarian Historical Memorial Committee had come into being. It first step was a mass rally on 15 March, the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1848-9 Revolutionary War, at the Petöfi monument in Budapest, demanding independence and a democratic Hungary.

In January 1942, Hungarian military units had executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied parts of Yugoslavia, the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to those territories which had been awarded to Yugoslavia by the Treaty of Trianon. Those ‘executed’ included 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, “could grow up to be enemies”. A third of the victims, it was estimated, were ethnic Hungarian Jews, who it was claimed had joined the Serbian partisans. A military tribunal was held to decide who was to blame for this atrocity, but not before the guilty commanders were able to find refuge in Germany. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, who arrived with terrible tales of mass executions: people had been thrown into the icy waters of the Danube , those in charge continuing the killings even after receiving orders to stop.

However, even amidst harsh discriminatory laws, which made mixed-marriages illegal and denounced ‘inter-racial’ sexual relations as a crime of defamation of race, the lives of most Jews in Hungary were not in immediate danger until 1944. As a result of this, about a hundred thousand Jews sought and found refuge in Hungary from Slovakia, Romania and Croatia, where they had been exposed to pogroms and deportation to death camps from early 1942 onwards. They joined the Polish Jews who had taken refuge in the capital at the beginning of the war.

In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not anticipated in Budapest and elsewhere. As early as July 1941, Göring had issued a directive for the implementation of the Final Solution. The Wannsee Conference had also taken place in January 1942, at which ‘Hangman Heydrich’ had boasted openly that that Solution involved eleven million Jews, all of whom would be selected for hard labour, most of whom would die through natural dimunition, the rest of them being killed. The President of the Jewish Council in Budapest, Samuel Stern, an anti-Zionist, remained confident that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. Scientifically regulated extermination facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner:

In the months to come, we may be left without money and comforts, but we shall survive.

Why, after all, would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means of defending themselves? Nevertheless, The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp. In the House of Commons, Churchill gave a scathing address, broadcast by the BBC, and heard throughout Budapest:

The most senseless of their offences… is the mass deportation of Jews from France, with the pitiful horrors attendant on the calculated and final scattering of families. This tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme.

At the end of 1942, there was still hope that refugees could slip through the German dragnet in exchange for bribes and, if the Hungarians allowed free passage for boats down the Danube, they could find a passage to Palestine from one of the Black Sea ports. The Jewish Agency in Palestine issued a statement condemning Britain’s breach of faith with the Jewish people:

It is in the darkest hour of Jewish history that the British government proposes to deprive Jews of their last hope and close the road back to their Homeland.

The British government refused to budge. In fact, as some Zionist leaders continued to support illegal immigration, it tightened the conditions for emigration to Palestine, declaring that from that point onwards, all illegal immigrants would be carefully deducted from the overall ‘legal’ quota totals. At the same time, the UK demanded that neutral nations, such as Portugal and Turkey, deny Jews transit to Palestine, and that their ships should stop delivering them to any port close to Palestine. The Foreign Office began to seek other settlement opportunities for the refugees in Australasia, Africa and South America, but without success. Ottó Komoly told Kasztner that there was…

…strong evidence to suggest that the British would rather see us all perish than grant one more visa for that benighted land. It’s a protectorate only because they want to protect it from us.

Despite mounting evidence of the persecution of Jews under the Third Reich, the British government adhered to its established limits on Jewish immigration throughout 1943. Neutral nations, such as Switzerland and Portugal did not want more Jews crossing their borders. Both the US and Britain tried to persuade Portugal to accept a sizable Jewish settlement in Angola, and they agreed to bribe the Dominican Republic with three thousand dollars per head, but neither of these measures could help alleviate the magnitude of the problem.

It was only in January 1944 that the United States created the War Refugee Board, charged with taking all measures within its power to rescue victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war. Even then, visas were often denied on the basis that the applicants had relatives in enemy countries, though most of them were, if still alive, on their way to the gas chambers by this time. Two affidavits of support and sponsorship were also required from “reputable American citizens”, attached to each application. It would have been difficult to invent a more restrictive set of rules. A joke was making the rounds in Budapest at the time:

A Jew goes into the US Consulate to ask for a visa. He is told to come back in 2003. “In the morning,” he asks, “or in the afternoon?”

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Above: Apostág Synagogue, Bács-Kiskun County.

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In any case, the setting up by the US of its War Refugee Board was too little, too late. On 19 March 1944, the Reich occupied Hungary, and Adolf Eichmann was put in charge of its primary objective – the annihilation of the Jews of Hungary and its surrounding territories. Within three months, the entire Jewish population from the rural areas, some 440,000 souls, had been deported, mainly to Auschwitz.

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The fate of the Budapest Jews, another 250,000, swelled by the refugees from other countries of central-eastern Europe, hung in the balance. Samuel Stern accepted, reluctantly, that the Zionists and Kasztner were right and he was wrong. Their only guarantee of survival was to buy their way out of the city and onto trains which would begin their journey to Palestine, whatever the British may say or do. Of course, we shall never know what would have happened had the Allies acted sooner to set up a proper system to enable the refugees to find asylum and eventually resettlement, most – though perhaps not all – of them in Palestine or the USA. However, whatever the generosity shown by ordinary people towards refugees, it is clear that governments have a responsibility to act on behalf of the victims of war and persecution. Now we have supra-national governments and international organisations, can we apply these lessons?

Sources:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train. London: Constable.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing.

 

The Blue Notebook (Holocaust Memorial Day 2016)   1 comment

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From Budapest to Bergen-Belsen: A Notebook from 1944

In 2012, Zsolt Zágoni edited and published a notebook written in 1944 by Rózsi Stern, a Jewish woman who escaped from Budapest. Written in Hungarian, it was translated into English by Gábor Bánfalvi, and edited by Carolyn Bánfalvi. The notebook is of primary historical significance because it summarises, in forty-four pages of handwriting (published in facsimile), the events beginning from the German occupation of Hungary on 19 March 1944 until the author’s arrival at Bergen-Belsen. It describes the general scene in Hungary, the looting of her family home, and the deportation of the Jews from Budapest.

Also, Rózsi Stern was the daughter of Samu Stern, one of the elected leaders of the Hungarian Jewish Council in Budapest during the latter stages of the war under German occupation. In March 1944 he was the leader of the group which was obliged to negotiate with Adolf Eichmann, the SS man in charge of the final solution in Hungary, about the fate of the Jewish community. Given the controversy surrounding these events, and Stern’s life, it could be seen as a controversial document. However, as Zágoni himself points out in his ‘Forword’,

… the importance of the notebook is that an everyday person – realizing the extraordinariness of the events – decides to tell her story, her fate, and the dramatic days of her family’s life and the black weeks and months of in Hungary … while she tries to understand the incomprehensible.

I have decided to draw attention to it here, not just because of Holocaust Memorial Day, but because it deserves to gain a wider readership outside Hungary, where it is published. Hopefully, the extracts I have chosen will demonstrate something of its importance:

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November 15 1944

Caille Inn, Geneva, Switzerland.

We, the Bamberger family and 318 other Jews, were granted a privileged fate by God’s will. After a terribly frightening, dangerous and adventurous five months, we can watch from Switzerland the collapse of the Germans and the Hitler regime at the end of the fifth year of the war. Although the lives of the three of us are safe now, we are dreadfully worried about my father, Irma (her sister), my husband’s entire family, and all of our relatives and friends at home. According to the radio, it is only a matter of days until Budapest will be taken by the Russians. But who knows what human evil can still do to the poor remaining Jews. We are totally cut off from them, but I still have firm faith in my good Lord that he will help our beloved ones along with the other long-suffering Jews. Therefore, I just keep praying to him and asking him to shelter and protect them from all harm, so soon we can meet again in happiness.

May it be like this! Amen.

March 19, 1944

The German Invasion of Budapest

On this Sunday, news that the Germans have occupied Budapest has spread like wildfire. People, especially Jews, are in unimaginable fear and shock. We have so far only heard from the radio and from stories of survivors about the brutalities of German terror and now we feel that the Jewish community in Hungary is facing the same fate. Unfortunately, our fears were justified. Already on the first day, some of the Jewish gentlemen holding the most prestigious positions were interned. They came twice to our house, and to the Community on Sip Street, looking for my father.

My father wanted to buy time, so our whole family spent the entire day and night with one of our doctor relatives. This is where we were notified that Krumey Obersturmbannfűhrer (lieutenant colonel) had ordered all the Community leaders – including priests, principals, and the president – to be present in the Sip Street office at 10 ‘o’ clock on Monday. We begged my father not to go, as we were afraid that he would be interned too. He said he would not hide and no matter what happens he would go to the indicated place. I cannot describe how nervous we were. Irma spent the whole morning walking up and down Sip Street, so at least she would see if my dad was being taken by the Germans. The Germans were negotiating with dad in a very polite way, and they assured him that nobody would get hurt and that they wanted to work with the Community.

They formed the Jewish Council with eight members, with my dad as the president. They were responsible for making sure that the regulations were carried out properly, and this was the prerequisite so that the Jewish community would be saved from the atrocities. Unfortunately, there was cruelty and lies behind the smooth manners. One of their first moves was to have all Jewish phones cut off, so that we couldn’t communicate with each other. Then radios had to be turned in. The Jewish Council had to make unimaginably great efforts to meet this incredible range of demands, which had to be taken care of within 24 hours. (We also had to turn in typewriters, paper goods, furniture, apartments, bicycles, gramophones with records, drinks, pictures, and much more). Whole warehouses and private properties had to be placed at their disposal within 24 hours. Jewish stores were closed and the goods were confiscated. The image of Budapest changed completely within the course of 48 hours. All business transactions were paralyzed and all you could see were worried, terrified people. Eskü Street 3 (dad’s house and also where Irma and her family live) turned int a scene reminiscent of the great migration. Relatives, friends, and acquaintances all turned to the president. What would happen now? What were we supposed to do? What fate is waiting for us? We always looked at my dad as a superior creature for his intelligence and kindness. Now I remember, with tears of emotion, how heroically he comforted and encouraged everybody and suppressed his anxiety and worries for his own children and grandchildren… even the Germans were impressed by his brave and calm behaviour…

…  People began to be collected from the streets. For example, if a married woman or a young girl went to the store or men left for work, you never knew if they would see their families again or would be captured on the street… At night men and women were taken from their homes… The yellow star had to be worn on your clothes or your coat on the left side above the heart, firmly sewn on. A lot of people were afraid to go out onto the street like this, branded, especially the Jews who… had denied a long time ago that they ever belonged to us. Amongst these – mainly the youth who didn’t know that they had Jewish backgrounds and now according to the German law they became Jewish again – many chose to commit suicide. 

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Above: Lídia Bamberger

Rózsi’s account goes on to describe what happened to close relatives and neighbours in Budapest, as well as to the Jews in the countryside and provincial towns, where the Jews were first of all forced into ghettos and then deported or sent to forced labour camps as part of the army (I have written about these events elsewhere). Ghettos were then made in Budapest as well, and designated buildings were marked with a yellow star hanging on the front gate. In the best cases, friends and relatives were able to move in together, five or six of people to one room. Rózsi’s family had to move because their house was designated as a yellow star building, and they occupied his apartment on the first floor, though all the other Jewish people staying there were soon moved on to another apartment house. Together with their father, there were nine of them living in the apartment by June 1944. Her husband, Gyuri, decided they should leave for Palestine, but her seventy-year-old father could not be persuaded to leave his responsibilities, and Rózsi could not imagine parting with him and her mother’s grave. She would also have to leave her husband’s family, including her eighty-year-old mother-in-law. In the end, she decided to leave with her husband and daughter. They were supposed to spend eight to ten days in a German camp outside Vienna and then travel through Germany and Spain to reach Palestine. The question was whether the Germans would keep their word and allow them to reach the Spanish border.

Departure and Transportation:

On 30 June, her father, accompanied by the German soldier who had been billeted with them, took them by taxi to the camp with their luggage. After two hours trying to ensure their safety, he left them at the internment camp, the synagogue on Aréna Street, which was already crowded with people, mostly those saved from the brick factories in the coutryside. Finally, after an anxious day standing in pouring rain, they boarded carriages ready to depart:

We sat lined around the sides, squeezed against each other, with our legs hanging down. Those who couldn’t fit like this were standing, leaning on each other, trying to balance… On both sides of the carriages there were German soldiers following the procession. All the way I was happy that my family didn’t see me in such miserable conditions. People on the street gathered in groups were wondering where all these yellow-starred Jews were being taken. Only on a few faces did I see compassion… After a two-hour carriage ride, we arrived at the Rákosrendező train station – on the outskirts of Budapest – totally soaking wet. It was starting to get dark by the time we occupied the wagon that was assigned to us.The suitcases were piled up against one of the walls of the wagon, and the backpacks were hanging on nails all around. In the meantime, people from other camps arrived, so by the time everyone got on there were seventy-two of us in our wagon… The wagon was only supposed to hold six horses or forty people…

We were sitting on our blankets, as tightly packed as we could be. There were twenty-six… children in our wagon, including sixteen orphans with one guardian lady… It was a miserable scene, especially seeing so many mentally worn-down people. Some people tried to stretch out, which was almost impossible, and others tried to make room for their legs while they were sitting.  Little children were crying from fear and because of the unusual environment; the bigger ones were fatigued, sleeping and leaning on one another. The adults, worn out from the stress they had gone through, were arguing or weeping in silence. Everybody was wondering how long we would be able to take this. And we took it, and even worse… The wagon had no toilet, of course, so our human needs could only be taken care of when the train stopped for awhile abnd we got permission to get off, which was not too easy either as the wagon was very high, so women and children could only get off and on with help and that could take some time… People jumped off the train like animals and shamelessly took care of their needs… because there wasn’t enough time to get farther away…

On Saturday July 1st at 10 a.m., we departed (from Ferencváros Station). We all rushed to the wagon’s only small window to wave a last goodbye to Budapest and everything and everyone that meant our life until now. Tears silently dripped down our faces and our hearts were broken from the pain. Maybe this was the last time we would ever see the Danube, the bridges, and the whole beautiful city where we were born and raised. The youth began to sing the “we’re going to find a new homeland” Hebrew song. Perhaps they will find it, but the older ones cannot be replanted.

The train moved at a quick pace to the border at Mosonmagyaróvár, arriving there at 6 p.m. During the night a baby girl was born, with the help of the doctors in the carriage. They stayed there for four days, built latrines, washed themselves fully as well as their clothes, and bought provisions from local villagers. Their German guards protected them from the cruelty of the Hungarian gendarmerie. On 6 July the train was directed to Komárom and rumours spread that they were being taken to Auschwitz. However, they arrived at the station in the Vienna suburbs in the evening of 7 July, and were then moved on to Linz by the next morning, having been told that the camps around Vienna were full. Here they were disembarked and disinfected, fearing that they were to be gassed. When they departed, having been thoroughly humiliated and terrorised by the guards, they had little idea where they were going or how many more nights they would spend on the wagon:

The train sped towards Hannover. We stopped one or two times because there were airstrikes., but this didn’t even affect us anymore. We had submitted to our fate and were totally indifferent.

We arrived on the 9th, a Sunday morning, at an improvised forest station near Hannover. It was a huge prison camp. We washed ourselves in big troughs and after an hour’s break, we sped further towards our destination, Bergen-Belsen.

Bergen-Belsen:

A whole bunch of German soldiers were waiting for the train, holding enormous bloodhounds on leashes… They yelled their orders harshly. They counted us by putting us in lines of five. This took about an hour and a half in the strong afternoon sun, and we almost collapsed from fatigue. After this, we walked nine kilometres. Sick and old people and our luggage were carried on trucks… We reached an immense camp. There were prisoners here of all types and nationalities: Russian, Polish, French, Dutch, Hungarian and Jewish. Each barrack block was separated with wire fencing. We got block 11. When we arrived, everyone was registered, and then they assigned our accommodation. Men and women were separated… Lydi and I got barrack F and Gyuri got a bed in barrack D. Our barracks were across from each other. The Tordas and a few other people were also assigned together with us.

About 160 of us were placed in one barrack, as an average. It was a dark wooden building with one small window (without lighting in the evening) and three-level wooden bunk beds above each other. Lydi and I got bottom beds so I wouldn’t have to climb ladders. Between the beds there was just enough room to turn around. It was very sad to move in here, but we were so tired that we were happy to have the possibility to finally stretch out. However, this only happened much later. Once everybody had a bed, we received an order to line up… Lining up took place in the yard, with people grouped by barracks. The first lineup took two hours in the pouring rain, with us wearing thin summer clothes without hats… The first dinner was next. They brought soup in pots. We stood in a line individually with the mess tins we were given. Unfortunately, no matter how hungry we were, we couldn’t swallow this slop. In the backpack we still had a little bit of food left from home, but we really had to be careful with that because our prospects were not very encouraging… we had to lie down wet, without blankets. It was a divine miracle that we didn’t catch pneumonia… It is hard to imagine sleeping in these physical and mental conditions. Sometimes a child would start crying, suppressed sobbing and deep sighs, for the old life and loved ones we left behind. You could hear other people snoring, and the different emotional and physical manifestations of 160 people. There was not a single minute of silence. Crowds of bedbugs and fleas rushed to welcome us. However, towards the morning, sleep still overcame me because I was greatly exhausted.

That is where the notebook ends. On 1 August, 1944, Lydia sent a postcard, which still exists, from Bergen-Belsen to her fiancée in the labour camp in Northern Transylvania. It told him that she and here parents were ‘doing well’ and had ‘the best prospects’ of continuing on their journey. Apparently, a ‘Collective Pass’ allowing group border crossing, stamped by the Swiss Embassy in Budapest and signed by its Consul, Carl Lutz, was what eventually secured their onward journey and border crossing. Rózsi’s father, Samu Stern, died on 9 June, 1946. There were many accusations made against him, and have been since, for the role he played. Krisztián Ungváry, in a historical tailpiece to the notebook, points out that the prominent members of the Jewish Community, like Stern (who had been one of its elected representatives before agreeing to become its president under Nazi rule), experienced within a few days of the occupation that their former social connections were worthless. Those who they could rely on before were either arrested or removed, and the Hungarian authority’s statements revolved around absolute obedience to German commands. Ungváry states clearly that

Eichmann and his colleagues systematically used the operation of the Jewish Council to calm the victims and make them carry out as many of the anti-Semitic measures as possible.  

I will be writing more about this, and the controversial rescue mission of Rudolf Kasztner in the near future. For now, it is enough to state that, contrary to popular mythology among many Hungarians, those who were at all interested in what was happening to the Jews in the March-October 1944 in Hungary had relatively broad access to information. Hungarian soldiers returning from the eastern front and refugees escaping from Galicia could provide accurate information about the details of the Nazi final solution. As the notebook extracts above show, Rozsi’s group certainly knew what Auschwitz meant at the beginning of July. The question remains as to why these pieces of information did not interest a significant part of both the Jewish and non-Jewish population. Stern himself had no illusions about Eichmann’s goal because he himself stated:

I knew about what they were doing in all the occupied countries of Central Europe and I knew that their operation was a long series of murders and robberies… I knew their habits, actions, and their terrible fame. 

Unlike his family, Samu Stern did not escape abroad where he would have been safe, and after the ‘Arrow Cross’ (Hungarian Fascist Party) gained power he managed to survive somehow in illegality until the Soviet troops arrived in the ghetto towards the end of January 1945. Thereafter, he was accused of collaboration, and even the police started a an investigation against him, but he was never sent to court. Before he died, he wrote a memoir, which was published in Hungarian in 2004.

Lídia Bamberger’s son, Péter Sas, gave his grandmother’s to the Zsolt Zágoni, in his apartment in Budapest. Zágoni read it all there and then, and realized that it had to be published. The notebook had been in the Sas family ever since it was was written, probably from notes Rózsi took on the deportation from Budapest to Bergen-Belsen. She probably wrote up her notes into prose in the blue-covered notebook in Geneva after their crossing from Germany (Belsen was not liberated by the British until April 1945). Besides the 15 November entry (above), the name of the hotel she was staying in, ‘Caille’ is printed on the back cover of the exercise book. Lídia married  Pál Sas in October 1945, after returning home with her mother to Budapest, though she remained ill for a long time, an illness which her mother nursed her through, saving her from becoming another victim of the Holocaust.

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The Jewish Cemetery, Budapest
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The original blue-covered notebook

 Source:

Zsolt Zágoni, ed. (2012), From Budapest to Bergen-Belsen: A Notebook from 1944. Budapest (published by the editor).

MAYING (MAJÁLIS…   1 comment

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MAYING (MAJÁLIS) by Miklós Radnóti, May 10th 1944.

 

The gramoflower rasping in the grass

croaks like the victim panting from the chase;

but girls instead of hunters hem it in,

the fiery petals of the feminine.

One maiden dips and kneels to change the track:

her legs are pale, though golden-brown her back;

cheap music wafts her tiny soul away

up where it hangs, a little cloud of grey.

The boys crouch, amberizing in the glow,

whisper sweet nothings quite malapropos;

with tiny victories their bodies thrill;

just as dispassionately they could kill.

But still they could be human. Something keeps

its noble place in them, although it sleeps:

the sweet intelligence of humankind.

O let it yet be so! – light of the mind!

Posted May 10, 2014 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , ,

Hungary and the World, 1919-2008: A Powerpoint Presentation and Gallery   1 comment

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Click on this link to access the powerpoints:

Motivational Magyars (1996-2006)

Hungary and the World, 1919-2008

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Village Voices & The Hungarian Holocaust   1 comment

As The Land Remembers Them:

Village Voices

& The Hungarian Holocaust

 

 
002

 by

 

Andrew James Chandler

 

Preface:

In July 1989, Dr Bill Campbell and myself, from the Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham, joined an exchange programme between the twinned municipalities of Coventry and Kecskemét, to establish an exchange between Westhill and Newman Colleges of Education and the Kecskemét College of Education. The following February, I took up a post as Associate Tutor for the Colleges, based in Kecskemét, at the invitation of the Principal of Westhill College, Rev Gordon Benfield and Dr Márta Dovala, of the Kecskemét College, under the guidance of József Vida, the Head of Modern Languages. The Hungarian Ministry of Education agreed to sponsor the appointment, and Gordon Benfield visited Kecskemét in March to formally establish the exchange programme. The benefit of a visit to the UK the following January for the Hungarian students in their four-year English Studies programme was fairly obvious. What was not, at first, as clear was the English Studies Programme the benefit that the student teachers from Birmingham would gain from a visit to Hungary the next spring, as part of their four-year B. Ed. Programme.

As both Westhill and Newman were built on strong Church foundations, both Free Church and Catholic, specialising in Religious Education, it was felt that it would be useful for them to engage with studies of the roles played by the churches in the various towns and villages throughout Bács-Kiskun County. Of course, they also visited primary schools and helped with English lessons, but, in 1990-91, and for some years following, there was no Religious Education provision in Hungarian schools. So, the key question which was under investigation during their visit was, ‘what are the values of the people and communities following the establishment of the Republic of Hungary and after forty years of the Hungarian People’s Republic?’  Coming from a multi-cultural society in the West Midlands, we wanted to know, in particular, why the town’s synagogue no longer had a worshipping Jewish community, and how the churches worked together to promote their beliefs and values in a more mono-cultural ‘Magyar’ society.

Coalescing with these developments, the Colleges established a Joint European Programme under EC TEMPUS funding, and Dr Éva Kruppa was appointed to the International Office in Kecskemét College of Education, to co-ordinate this. In planning the student exchange, she suggested a visit to Apostag, since she was aware of the work being done there to both restore the synagogue for community use, largely completed by 1987, and to commemorate the village’s victims of the Holocaust of 1944-5. So it was that in the autumn of 1990 that Bill Campbell (RE) and John Gosling (English), visiting Kecskemét, came with Éva, József and myself to visit the village, see its synagogue and meet its residents, some of who had known the victims well as children and young people. What follows here is the result of their testimony, given at that initial meeting and during the visit of the students from Birmingham, Michael and Ruth, who spent a week in the villages of the territory in April 1991. None of their testimony could have been recorded without the painstaking translation provided by Hajnalka Szigeti (pictured below in 1991), an excellent student from Kiskunfélegyháza at the College of Education in Kecskemét, and now a teacher near Hastings. The original intention was to transcribe the testimonies together the following autumn, but that summer my recall to Westhill and Newman Colleges, as a Teacher/Fellow, prevented this.

001

AJC, 27/1/2013: Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz/ Holocaust Memorial Day

Contents:

 

Introduction

Habakkuk’s Protest;

The Lord’s Answer;

Habakkuk’s Prayer;

Hungarian Jewry – A Doomed People?

 

Chapter One: A Timeline of the Hungarian ‘Shoah’

 

Anti-Jewish Laws, 1938-41

The Census of 1941

Occupation and Deportation

Survival

 

Chapter Two: Apostag – The Village in View

 

Geography

Testimony

The Village Chronicle to 1918

The Synagogue & the Jewish Community

Village Relationships Between the Wars

 

Chapter Three: Fifty Years of Division & Sorrow

 

Anti-Semitic Laws & Outbreak of War

Deportation, May 1944

Continuation & Conclusion of War

The Aftermath

The Village in the Nineties

 

References & Bibliography

 

© 2013 Andrew James Chandler/ Team Britannia, Hungary

 

 

Introduction:

Habakkuk’s Protest:

Nothing is known about the prophet Habakkuk apart from what is in his book. Because he mentions Babylon (1:6) it is assumed that he lived at the end of the seventh century B.C., when the Nebuchadnezzar’s forces ‘ended’ Israel and Judah was exiled.  The prophet questions God about his justice: why does he turn a blind eye to Babylon’s cruelty and deportations? How can he use wicked people to punish people who are better than them? These are questions that many Jews must have echoed on their way to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and other death camps, as well as inside them, centuries later:

‘How long, O Lord, must I call for help,

But you do not listen?

Or cry out to you, “Violence!”

But you do not save?

Why do you make me look at injustice?

Why do you tolerate wrong?

Destruction and violence are before me;

There is strife and conflict abounds.

Therefore the law is paralysed,

And justice never prevails.

The wicked hem in the righteous,

So that justice is perverted.’

(1: 2-4)

 

The Lord’s Answer:

God gives no direct answer, but promises that one day he will punish all oppression and injustice:

 

‘Woe to him who builds his city with bloodshed,

And establishes a town by crime!

Has not the Lord almighty determined

That the people’s labour is only fuel for the fire,

That nations exhaust themselves for nothing?

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge

Of the glory of the Lord,

As the waters cover the sea.’

(2: 12-14)

 

Habakkuk’s Prayer:

The book concludes with a statement by the prophet that he will trust God, no matter what happens:

‘I heard and my heart pounded,

My lips quivered at the sound;

Decay crept into my bones,

And my legs trembled.

Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity

To come on the nation invading us.

Though the fig tree does not bud

And there are no grapes on the vines,

Though the olive crop fails

And the fields produce no food,

Though there are no sheep in the pen

And no cattle in the stalls,

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

I will be joyful in my saviour.

     

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;

He makes my feet like the feet of a deer,

He enables me to go on the heights.

(3: 16-19)

 

Hungarian Jewry: A People Doomed?

I’d gladly resign my claim to the Hungarian Jews if only I were certain that their patriotism would save them from the misery of antisemitism…But the Jews of Hungary will also be overtaken by their doom, which will be all the more brutal and merciless as time passes, and wilder too, the stronger they get in the meantime. There is no escaping it.

Theodor Herzl, 1903

‘Tivadar’ (his given name in Hungarian) Herzl was born in Budapest in 1860 at a time when Hungarian Jews were so well-integrated into national life that their Chief Rabbi sat in the Upper House of Parliament. This integration had taken place over the two previous centuries, so that at the beginning of the twentieth century they had become part of the Hungarian nation legally, socially and culturally. All that really marked them out as different were their synagogues and religious practices, though even here, the laws relating to food were being abandoned by the 1920s, as the testimony below shows.

After the sudden wave of anti-Semitic horror which engulfed Hungary for the last two years of the war had passed, the Communists made any mention of the Jews as a people a taboo topic, except in the context of a ‘scientific’ study of it as a religion. This was applied to Jews and non-Jews alike. Such studies were restricted to the confines of Marxist academia. Any form of Religious Education in schools was strictly prohibited and church activities were severely restricted. Any discussion of the events as genocide was frowned upon, if not punished. The victims of the Holocaust were called those persecuted by the Nazis. So it was only after the forty years from 1948 to 1988 that the unresolved anti-Semitic laws of the Hungarian Horthy Government, the actions of the Hungarian Fascists and the Nazi deportations could be examined in the clear light of day, and spoken about in public. Of course, this, in itself, remained a difficult process, since many of the small number of those who participated in these actions were still alive and identifiable as neighbours in the village.

More recently, the task has been made still more difficult, though even more important, by the re-emergence of anti-Semitism in Hungary, even within the very same Parliament building where the Chief Rabbi sat (quite comfortably) a hundred years ago. An MP belonging to the anti-Semitic ‘Jobbik’ Party recently suggested that a new national register of Jews be kept, provoking huge controversy and protest both within the country and internationally, reminding everyone of the 1941 Census, used by the Nazis in 1944 to rapidly deport most of the Jewish population. Even among my own Hungarian friends and family, partly Jewish itself, I have heard more anecdotal anti-Semitic remarks in the past two years since returning to Hungary, than I ever heard in the two years of 1989-91, when this project was conducted. In fact, from 1991 to 2011, I encountered more anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim attitudes in the Churches I attended in Britain, than in Hungary. Recently, however, in Budapest and elsewhere in Hungary, Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated, memorials have been defaced and damaged, and, perhaps most sinisterly, rabbis have suffered abuse in the streets.

More positively, however, there has also been a new emphasis on Jewish identity in the last fifteen years, most noticeably in music and culture, which previously was considered a thing confined to the distant past, as if it belonged to a different country. Perhaps this is due to an increasing recognition that post-war politics has not allowed for the social resolution of this trauma. Hungary never had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for any of the events of 1938-88. After the Holocaust, Hungary was the only country in Central Europe to retain a significant Jewish population, so this remains a practical issue for both Jews, Gypsies and Magyars alike. Until the country comes to terms with its twentieth-century past, at least in regard to current attitudes, it will remain stuck there, paralysed and unable to move on to become the  twenty-first century democratic nation it longs to be. It’s in this spirit of reconciliation that I decided to share these testimonies for Holocaust Memorial Day, 2013.

Chapter One: A Timeline of the Hungarian ‘Shoah’

Anti-Jewish Laws, 1938-1941:

Starting in 1938, the Horthy Government in Hungary passed a series of anti-Jewish laws based on Germany’s Nürnberg Laws. The first, passed on May 29th, 1938, restricted the number of Jews in each commercial enterprise, in the press, among physicians, engineers and lawyers to twenty percent. The second anti-Jewish law (May 5th, 1939), defined Jews as a racial group for the first time. People with two or more Jewish-born grandparents were declared Jewish. Private companies were forbidden to employ more than 12% Jews. 250,000 Hungarian Jews lost their income. Most of them lost their right to vote as well.

In the elections of May 28th–29th, Nazi and Arrow Cross parties received one-quarter of the votes and 52 out of 262 seats. Their support was even larger, usually between a third and a half of the votes, where they were on the ballot at all, since they were not listed in large parts of the country. The ‘Third Jewish Law’ (August 8th, 1941) prohibited intermarriage and penalized sexual intercourse between Jews and non-Jews.

The Census of 1941:

The census of January 31st, 1941 found that 6.2% of the population of 13,643,620, i.e. 846,000 people, were considered Jewish according to the racial laws of that time. In addition, in April 1941, Hungary annexed the regions of Yugoslavia it had occupied, adding over a million people to its population, including a further 15,000 Jews. This means that inside the May 1941 borders of Hungary, there were 861,000 people who were considered to be Jewish. From this number, 725,000, nearly 5% of the total population were Jewish by religion.

When the Nazis invaded in March 1944 they used the lists of members of the Jewish community to organise one of the swiftest and most efficient episodes of the Holocaust. With the ready assistance of Hungarian officials and the Gendarmerie 440,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz within a few weeks, most to their deaths. On some days the gas chambers and crematoria processed more than a thousand people an hour.

Occupation and Deportation:

A Jew living in the Hungarian countryside in March 1944 had a chance of less than one in ten of surviving the following twelve months.In Budapest, a Jew’s chance of survival of the same twelve months was fifty/fifty.

On March 18th, 1944, Hitler summoned Horthy to a conference in Austria, where he demanded greater collaboration from the Hungarian state in his ‘final solution’ of his Jewish problem. Horthy resisted, but while he was still at the conference, German tanks rolled into Budapest. On March 23rd, 1944, the government of Döme Sztójay was installed. Among his other first moves, Sztójay legalized the overtly Fascist Arrow Cross Party, which quickly began organizing throughout the country. During the four-day interregnum following the German occupation, the Ministry of the Interior was put in the hands of right-wing politicians well-known for their hostility to Jews. On April 9th, Prime Minister Sztójay agreed to place at the disposal of the Reich 300,000 Jewish labourers. Five days later, on April 14th, Adolf Eichmann decided to deport all the Jews of Hungary.

From his SS headquarters in Budapest’s Majestic Hotel, Eichmann proceeded rapidly in rounding up Jews from the Hungarian provinces outside Budapest and its suburbs. The Yellow Star and Ghettoization laws, and the deportation, were accomplished in less than 8 weeks with the enthusiastic help of the Hungarian authorities, particularly the Gendarmerie. The plan was to use forty-five cattle cars per train, four trains a day, to deport 12,000 Jews to Auschwitz every day from the countryside, starting in mid-May; this was to be followed by the deportation of Jews of Budapest from about July 15th.

At the end of April,the Jewish leaders of Hungary, together with the Hungarian leaders of the Roman Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran Churches, in addition to Horthy, received a detailed report about the deportation to Auschwitz, but kept their silence, thus keeping the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews and their Christian neighbours in ignorance, and enabling the success of Eichmann’s timetable. The reality that no one in the villages knew anything about the plan in advance of it being carried out is borne out by the testimony of the Apostag villagers below.

The first transports to Auschwitz began in early May 1944 and continued even as Soviet troops approached. The Hungarian government was solely in charge of the Jews’ transportation up to the northern border. The Hungarian commander of the Kassa railroad station meticulously recorded the trains heading to Auschwitz with their place of departure and the number of people inside them. The first train went through Kassa on May 14th. On a typical day, there were three or four trains, with ten to fourteen thousand people on each. There were 109 trains during these 33 days through to June 16th, as many as six trains each day. Between June 25th and 29th, there were a further 10 trains, then an additional 18 trains between July 5th and 9th. By then, nearly 440,000 victims had been deported from the Hungarian towns and countryside, according to official German reports. Another 10 trains were sent to Auschwitz via other routes from Budapest, while seven trains containing over twenty thousand people went to Strasshof at the end of June, including two from Baja, which may well have picked up the Jews from Apostag at Kalocsa.

In total, one hundred and forty-seven trains were sent to Auschwitz, where 90% of the people were exterminated on arrival. Because the crematoria couldn’t cope with the number of corpses, special pits were dug near them, where bodies were simply burned. It has been estimated that one-third of the murdered victims at Auschwitz were Hungarian.For most of this time period, 12,000 Jews were delivered to Auschwitz in a typical day. Photographs taken at Auschwitz were found after the war showing the arrival of Jews from Hungary at the camp.

The devotion to the cause of the ‘final solution’ of the Hungarian Gendarmerie surprised even Eichmann himself, who supervised the operation with only twenty officers and a staff of a hundred, including drivers, cooks, etc. Very few members of the Catholic or Protestant clergy raised their voices against sending the Jews to their death. A notable exception was Bishop Áron Márton, in his sermon in Kolozsvár on May 18. But the Catholic Primate of Hungary, Serédi, decided not to issue a pastoral letter condemning the deportation of the Jews.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in a letter to his Foreign Secretary dated July 11, 1944, wrote:

 “There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world….”

Admiral Horthy ordered the suspension of all deportations on July 6. Nonetheless, another 45,000 Jews were deported from the Trans-Danubian region and the outskirts of Budapest to Auschwitz after this day. The Sztójay government then rescheduled the date of deportation of the Jews of Budapest to Auschwitz to August 27th. But the Romanians switched sides on August 23, 1944, causing huge problems for the German military, and Himmler ordered the cancellation of further deportations from Hungary on August 25th. Horthy finally dismissed Prime Minister Sztójay on August 29th.

However, in spite of the change of government, Hungarian troops occupied parts of Southern Transylvania, Romania, and massacred hundreds of Jews, starting on September 4th.

After the Arrow Cross coup d’état on October 15th, tens of thousands of Jews of Budapest were sent on foot to the Austrian border in death marches, and most forced labourers under Hungarian Army command were deported to Bergen-Belsen. Two ghettos were set up in Budapest. The big Budapest ghetto was set up and walled in the Erzsébetváros part of Budapest on November 29th. Arrow Cross raids and mass executions occurred in both ghettos regularly. In addition, in the two months between November 1944 and February 1945, the Arrow Cross shot between ten and fifteen thousand Jews on the banks of the Danube. Soviet troops liberated the big Budapest ghetto on January 18th, 1945. On the Buda side of the town, the encircled Arrow Cross continued their murders until the Soviets took Buda on February 13th.

The names of some diplomats, Raoul Wallenberg, Ángel Sanz Briz, Carl Lutz, Giorgio Perlasca, Carlos de Sampayo Garrido and Alberto Teixeira Branquinho deserve mentioning, as well as some members of the army and police who saved people (Pál Szalai, Károly Szabó, and other officers who took Jews out from camps with fake papers) and some church institutions and personalities. Rudolph Kastner deserves special attention because of his enduring negotiations with Eichmann to prevent deportations to Auschwitz, succeeding only minimally, by sending Jews to still horrific labour battalions in Austria and ultimately saving 1,680 Jews in Kastner’s train.

Survival:

An estimated 119,000 Jewish people were liberated in Budapest (25,000 in the small, ‘international’ ghetto, 69,000 in the big ghetto and 25,000 hiding with false papers) and 20,000 forced labourers in the countryside. Almost all of the surviving deportees returned between May and December 1945, at least to check out the fate of their families. Their number was 116,000.

It is estimated that from an original population of 861,000 people considered Jewish inside the borders of 1941–44, about 255,000 survived. This gives a 30% survival rate overall under Hungarian rule, but only because the projected deportations from Budapest did not take place. As has already been stated, the survival rates for Jews from the Hungarian countryside were far lower. This number was even worse in Slovakia. On the other hand, the Hungarian-speaking Jewish population fared much better in the Romanian-controlled Southern Transylvania, since Romania did not deport Jews to Auschwitz. According to another calculation, Hungary’s pre-war Jewish population was 800,000, of which 180,000 survived.

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Chapter Two: Apostag – The Village in View

 

Location of Bács-Kiskun county in the Southern...

Location of Bács-Kiskun county in the Southern Great Plain region (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Geography:

The village is in the County of Bács-Kiskun, occupying an area of thirty-two square kilometres, and with a population of just over 2,100. It’s located close to the eastern bank of the River Danube, to the south of Budapest on Hungary’s Southern Great Plain region. It is both a village and a municipality.

Testimony:

When we visited Apostag for the first time, in the autumn of 1990, we were met by a group of villagers at the Village House, the former Synagogue. There were no surviving Jewish residents or relatives of residents from the earlier period, so we realised very quickly that our project would depend entirely on the testimony of the Christian inhabitants who had contact with, and remembered, the families, together with the Church leaders, charged with the responsibility of commemorating these people and events.

The witnesses initially told their stories uninterrupted by ourselves. I remember that the testimony of one elderly woman was particularly moving, and she sobbed as she gave it. Similar accounts were recorded in the later visit to the village, which took place in the spring of 1991, in notes and on magnetic tape.

Several interviews were conducted over the course of the week, involving people altogether, at least six of who were eyewitnesses. Their testimonies have been merged to some extent, where common observations or experiences were described. Individual stories are reported using Christian names only. Full names are only used in connection with the Jewish victims, when given to us. The text follows closely the original words, in translation, used by the witnesses, and contains very few interpretations and additions by me.

The Village Chronicle to 1918:

The Catholic Priest told us that before the Hungarian tribes settled in the Carpathian Basin, there were some ‘Bulgár’ people living on this territory and they built their ancient Christian Church here. They called it ‘the Church of the Twelve Apostles’ which is where the name ‘Apostag’ comes from. It was a twelve-cornered rotund building, almost round, and couldn’t have been built in this form by the Magyars, who built in a totally different style.  It is thought that the name ‘Hungary’ may originate from these Bulgar people and not, as is commonly but erroneously supposed, from the Huns, the nomadic people who had built up a powerful Eurasian empire in the fifth century, under their leader Attila (406-453). In the seventh century, the Magyars settled in the former lands of a Bulgar-Turkish trading alliance along the Danube. These people were called ‘On-Ungour’, which meant ‘Ten Arrows’, or ‘Ten Tribes’ in Turkish, mutating to ‘Ungar’ in German and ‘Hongrois’ in French, no doubt passing from there into ‘Hungary’ in English, hence the confusion with the Huns.

For these early Christian traders up the Danube from the Black Sea ports, Apostag was no doubt an important port, as well as a centre of their faith, to which the stones of this ancient church on the site of the present-day Reformed Church, bear witness. So when the Hungarian people settled in this territory, they found this church, which remained here until the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the Calvinists were growing in numbers following the end of the Ottoman occupation and needed a bigger place of worship. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the settlement was a very important centre of Roman Catholicism, because the priests from all over Hungary gathered here, before going to meet the King. There are records of these meetings in the Vatican archives. The Ottoman troops destroyed this early settlement on the way to Buda. A settlement named ‘Apostag’ then grew up on the other side of the Danube during the Turkish occupation. The lands on this western, or left bank remained under Hapsburg control for most of the period.

Although still quite a small village by Hungarian standards, its central location and role in the territory meant that there were strong congregations for all the main Christian churches, Catholic, Evangelical (Lutheran) and Reformed (Calvinist). The Evangelical congregation was the oldest and richest congregation in the village. They escaped from persecution in the Hapsburg territories to this territory, because it was under Turkish occupation. They were able to save some money here, and they soon became rich. However, it was only when the occupation ended at the end of the seventeenth century that the settlement on the right bank was fully restored by the Reformed Church, who became owners of the site of the ancient church.

The Calvinists were soon followed by Evangelical and Catholic people who settled down in what began to look like the large, traditional Magyar village of today. By the middle of the eighteenth century there were about 150 Catholic families in the village and in 1991, there were a total of about 1,200 Catholics living in the village. There are two other villages belonging to the Church territory today, Dunaegyháza and Dunavecse.

There were also a lot of mixed marriages. Pál, a retired teacher in 1991, had a mother who was Lutheran and his father was Catholic. His wife was Lutheran and her father was Calvinist. So, there was a real mixture of ‘religions’. However, he stressed that they could all live together without many problems.

The Synagogue and the Jewish Community:

There has been a Synagogue in Apostag since 1768, the Jewish population having developed into a sizeable, settled community, worthy of its own place of worship, by the 1760s. The earliest place of worship was completed by the end of the eighteenth century. The Jews had settled in this part of Hungary at the beginning of the Turkish occupation, following the Battle of Mohács in 1526. It was at the beginning of the eighteenth century that they came to the village selling small goods like needles, and at first they were very poor. They saved a lot of money and by the second half of that century they had become rich enough to think about building a synagogue. The proximity of the settlement to Buda/ Pest along the Danube meant that the richer Jews living in the cities were in a position to help the Jews of Apostag with both money and materials. They not only helped each other, but earned a reputation for honesty in their trading relations with others as well.

In 1820, the Synagogue, together with a large part of the village, was destroyed by fire. The new building had to be larger, since the congregation numbered more than six hundred by this time. It had a plain, simple appearance from the outside, as the Jews did not want it to stand out too much. However, inside it was very ornate in parts, decorated in a baroque style, with a magnificent four-pillared ‘bimah’ as its central feature and a beautifully crafted ‘Aaron-cabin’ housing the Torah on the eastern wall. These can be seen in their restored form in the synagogue today. The interior bears a striking similarity to the Protestant churches of the Great Plain. The men in the congregation worshipped in the main hall of the synagogue, with the women and young children occupying the galleries, according to Judaic custom.

The village was an important centre of trade, because it was a central crossing place over the Danube and the place where cereals, wood and building materials were traded. The Jews became rich mainly because of the trade in wood, since the merchants brought wood along the Danube from the Upper Austro-Hungarian territories, which later became part of the new state of Czechoslovakia in 1918-20. The Jewish traders bought and sold the wood in Apostag, making a lot of money, which they then used to buy most of the land in the territory (around Apostag). This territory was very famous for its agriculture and the Jewish families were dealing with the growing of all kinds of vegetables and maize.

The Catholic Church has some documents dating back to the nineteenth century. According to these, in 1863, there were as many as 900 Jewish inhabitants, and among them were the richest people in the village.

Village Relationships Between the Wars:

By the end of the Great War and the beginning of the living memory of those giving oral evidence, there were some 2,300 inhabitants of the village and 104 Jewish families. Some of them owned land and some rented it, so not all the Jewish families were rich, and some remained quite poor. There were between one and three children in the families (smaller than the average ‘Magyar’ family). Twenty-four councillors were elected for the Village Council, one for each group of ten families. These representatives needed to be fairly wealthy landowners to qualify for election, and the fact that twelve of these councillors were Jewish also shows how integral a part of the leadership of the village they had become.

When the Jewish people bought most of the land and began to deal with the trade in cereals, they then began to buy shops. Most of the shops belonged to these families, and, for example, the Chemist’s now (in 1991) was a butcher’s shop at that time (1918-38). All the houses on the same corner of the main street were Jewish, and there were a lot of Jewish homes in that one street. The head of one of the families was a tanner, making and selling leather, and others in the street were leather-workers.

For the most part, there weren’t any problems between the Jews. They really helped each other. It was interesting that when new Jewish people arrived in the village there was a house, a room just for this purpose of providing accommodation until the family could find their own flat or house, and work, in the village. They didn’t want to keep their money for themselves. On the whole, there were very good relationships between the Jewish people and the other Hungarians. The Jewish people were so kind to the Hungarian people that they lent, or gave money to the poor.  They weren’t really rich families, but had enough money to live on. Some of these Jewish tradesmen lent them some cereals if the poor peasants didn’t have any, although they had to pay it back with interest. The Hungarian people didn’t keep it for a long time, but only for a year or two. Most Magyars liked the Jewish people, but some didn’t, because those who were merchants, dealing in cereals, bought them at a very cheap price in the village and sold it at a very expensive price in Budapest, so high that nowadays (1991) the price is almost the same as it was then.

The Jewish families not only bought land, but they rented it as well, and they had very modern equipment and machines. They had a lot of animals and they had land of a very good quality.

Pál, a retired teacher (in 1991), was born in Apostag of peasant parents. He remembers that in his childhood there was a disabled Jewish boy in this street who was very ill with and he died before the Jews were taken away. He used to go to that house because they were quite rich and he was given a lot of sweets and he read books out loud to the boy because he couldn’t read because of his illness.

There was a Chemist in the village, and they had a daughter, who was one year younger than Pál, and sometimes he met her on the street when she was out walking with her French au pair. They liked each other, and the girl asked her mother to ‘buy this boy for me, if you can!’ So she thought that her parents could buy anything!

This girl now lives in Israel, and she came home to the village, but they weren’t able to meet. Her name was Klára Hetényi.

Pál could remember well that from around 1934, Lajos Nagy, the writer, was collecting topics for writing a book and in his most famous book he wrote about these Jewish families. Lajos Nagy’s wife was Jewish and they visited Apostag several times. He was able to meet up with his wife here and they were able to escape deportation by going from here to Budapest. He was said to be a Communist writer, but he wasn’t really, he was just interested in these socialist topics and sociology. In his books he doesn’t really speak in a very kind way about Jewish people.

In a Jewish family, they had several servants to do the housework, even if they weren’t so rich. The richest one, by giving her a job as a washing lady, helped the poor Jew.

In a Hungarian family, even if they were rich, they just did it themselves. So, the wife had to do the housework. They didn’t spend their money on this.

There were some women who weren’t very kind to their servants, but it happened not only with Jewish women, but with others as well. Small Hungarian peasant families originally owned the Jewish houses and it was claimed that they had collapsed because of fires. The poor Hungarian peasants couldn’t repair these houses, so the Jewish people bought them. There was gossip that these weren’t accidents, but someone set fire to them. Most of the houses in the main street belonged to Jewish families. We don’t know if these story is true or not, but people thought there must be some truth in them. Perhaps this was evidence of anti-Semitism.

However, an example of the good relations between the Jews and the Hungarians was that in 1937 there was a really big storm and lightning destroyed the house of a Jewish woman. A lot of people, not only Jewish people, but also Hungarians, tried to save the house, but it was ruined.

Anna was born in Apostag in 1919, and spent all her life in the village. So, she remembers her childhood and the Jewish families, because they often asked her mother to help them cook something, and she used to help her mum. Instead of going home, she would always spend the afternoons in the Jewish houses. She can remember all the families living in the main street and she can tell all the names and stories. They had a very good relationship with them.

To help her mother, Anna had to learn the Jewish food customs. They were not supposed to eat from Friday evening until Sunday. They were fasting, and the Saturday was their Sabbath, ‘Shabbat’, so they didn’t work on that day. If they ate bread, it had to be special, unleavened bread. They also ate this special ‘matzo’ bread on New Year’s Eve. Anna remembered her mum helping a young servant prepare the Passover meal, according to the Judaic food laws, washing the meat together and taking it to the Cantor.

The Jews ate only meat which was ‘kosher’, from their own butcher’s shop, chopped with a special knife, and they had to kill the animal with only one blow of the knife, without breaking its bones. The blood was unclean, and they had the special unleavened bread, matzoh. Only the elderly people were eating this meat and bread; the younger people ate pork as well, so they departed from these rules. However, some of older people continued to keep the food laws.

Anna remembers from when she was a young girl that her sister asked her to go to a shop to get some bicarbonate of soda and the shopkeeper asked ‘what shall I give you? Soda as well as an ox?’ (a play on words in Hungarian). The Chemist was Jewish, and the doctor as well. She remembers seven shops, two of which belonged to Magyars, and five to Jewish families. She remembers a greengrocer’s shop, which was also a butcher’s shop and she remembers that family. They didn’t have any land to grow vegetables, so (during the war) they had only the butcher’s shop but it was interesting that they could make a living out of it alone.

Pál didn’t spend all his life in this village; he spent some years in a town. He thought that ‘nowadays’ it wasn’t better to live in a village than it was then. It was better in ‘the old days’. There were eight shops in the village, and now there are only two ‘ABC’ shops, small supermarkets, where you can buy everything. Then there were eight of these, so the standard of living was better and the inhabitants, though not rich, had everything they needed, even from foreign countries. For example, they could buy needles and thread from England. He only just found the thread, which reminded him of this. The streets weren’t covered with concrete. It was muddy, so they didn’t walk through it after rain. There were no streetlights at all, but the water pipe was very good, because there weren’t any wells in the neighbourhood, so the pipe had to be very good.

In their free time, they couldn’t really use the Danube banks to swim, because it was quite dirty and polluted. A lot of people had ‘hobby gardens’ or allotments, in which they tried to grow things.

There was also a Jewish doctor in the street and just opposite there was a famous house, or mansion, which belonged to Ákos Hetényi, and this is now called ‘Ákos Garden’. Three families were living in that mansion, and Pál used to go there to collect tennis balls, because they had a tennis court. It was a real experience to visit that garden because they had many bushes, trees and flowers there. He had several fellow students who were Jewish.

János, born 1918, attended a Lutheran (Evangelical) School, famous for its strong teachers. Most of the Jewish children studied there, so he remembers them well. In particular, three children in the same class as him, though they were younger, the youngest being the doctor’s son, whose family lived in the house next to the school. They were all very good friends with him. The parents of the other two children were ‘bailiffs’, who gave orders to the peasants about where and how to work, and what to do.

The doctor’s son was a bit lazy. He was clever, but he didn’t do anything in school time, or in the holiday, nothing. He preferred talking and just staying in bed and on Monday mornings he usually asked his friend to do his Maths homework and paid him for it. János could buy a lot of chocolate and sweets for this! Later on they left that school and went to a Grammar School, so they didn’t meet up as often.

Chapter Three: Fifty Years of Division & Sorrow

 

Anti-Semitic Laws and the Outbreak of War:

Pál’s father was the Justice of the Peace in the village law court when the anti-Semitic laws began to be introduced. His father was always very humane towards the Jewish people in the village: He gave several certificates to them to pass on to the German or Russian leaders. Some of the children moved to Budapest at this time, so they met only rarely.

János’ parents rented some of the land of the Jewish families who moved to Budapest, just as the war began. Before the laws restricting Jews from owning shops were introduced, János worked together with these Jewish families, and he was apprenticed to one Jewish family, training to be a butcher, working with two Jewish butchers in their shop. He went to a school in Budapest to train there, but he had to return to Apostag, because the Jewish butchers weren’t allowed to work in their own shop, because of the anti-Jewish laws. So they sold the shop to him, and he became the butcher.

János’ father was a ‘hussar’, a light cavalry soldier, who was in the Hungarian Army for seven years, fighting alongside the Jewish soldiers. The Jewish people living in Apostag were not just Jewish in culture, but also Hungarian. Some part of their hearts was Hungarian.

At the outbreak of the war, Pál had just enrolled as a student teacher at the Training College in Budapest. When they began the course there were fifty students, of whom only fifteen graduated when the war ended, not just because they became soldiers, but because some left Hungary to live in other parts of the world rather than join up. It wasn’t compulsory for them to join up, but they were put under a lot of pressure to do so. They hated this recruitment campaign.

Pál stated that there were no real arguments between the two ethnic groups until Hitler’s troops came into Hungary. This, he said, was the story of Hungary, because we are at the gate of the west and the east, and everybody runs through this gate, and we don’t know what to do. We can’t help this. First the Mongols, then the Tartars, then the Turks, then the Russians, then the Germans and every one of them ruined this country.

However, János said that it was the 1941 Census that marked the real beginning of the legal discrimination against the Jewish people. Everyone had to show their grandparents’ birth certificates, or Christening certificates. János remembers that, as a soldier, he had to show this certificate as well. He didn’t know why at the time, but now he does.

For example, he remembers a town clerk from before the war who belonged to the Fascist Party (the Arrow Cross) and the Jewish people first suffered because of him and his party. It wasn’t a very happy life, even for János, because he needed to get a license to slaughter the animals, so he wasn’t able to do as much for the Jews as he wanted. He couldn’t give them as much meat as he wanted to, because of the new laws.

It only became worse only in 1943/4. So, the Nazis only came in March 1944, but by that time the Horthy Government had a lot of people in place in key positions in the towns and villages of Hungary who had wanted to become the leaders in these places for some time, and that was a sad time for everybody.It was a very moving moment when, in March 1944, Anna saw her Jewish neighbours wearing the yellow star for the first time. She met a woman wearing the star, and nodded her head because she couldn’t look at the star, and the woman was really upset about it. The woman told her that they would have revenge on someone for this, that they would do something in the years to come.

Another woman spoke to us on our first visit to the synagogue, of a close Jewish friend who, although not related, looked almost like her identical twin sister, so much so that, before the war, they would try to fool the villagers by exchanging clothes and pretending to be each other. On the ‘Shabbat’, Saturdays, she would occasionally take her friend’s place with the other children and their mothers on the balcony of the synagogue during worship. Her head was covered, and no one looked at her too closely while the service was taking place. Meanwhile, her Jewish friend was playing outside. In return, the Jewish Girl would sneak into the back of the Church her friend attended the next morning.

When the Hungarian Fascists, the ‘Arrow Cross’ Guards came to the village in March 1944, the two friends put their similarity to more serious use.  From this time onwards, the Jews were forced to wear yellow stars on the streets and in the fields. If they were found outside without them they were routinely beaten up, there and then, by the Fascists, who would also take pleasure in abusing the Jewish girls in particular, without any reason to do so other than their ethnicity, when they saw them coming. One day, the young Christian girl suggested to her friend that they should swap coats, and she would wear the coat with the star. That day, she took the beating and the abuse.

The Deportation; May, 1944:

János had joined the army in 1940 and was a soldier until 1948. He was only given leave once during this time, and this, crucially and perhaps poignantly, happened to be in May 1944. While he was at home, the Jewish families were taken away from the village. There is no evidence that anyone in the village, even soldiers like János, had any prior knowledge of the Nazi deportation plan. Even if they had heard something, there were only two cars in the village in 1944, so there was no real possibility of escaping abroad in the days and nights before it was so rapidly and ruthlessly enacted.

As it happened, János was surprised by the speed with which the Hungarian soldiers came in and took the Jewish people to Kalocsa. No one knew where they were being taken, or how long they would stay there, or what would happen to them. They were told to gather what they needed and they had to leave this village. Two little girls, aged 9 and 11, were somehow left behind, and they were able to stay on for a while, but one day the soldiers came and took them to Kalocsa as well. He was able to talk with the Hungarian soldiers who said that they weren’t very happy to take the girls away, but they had to do this. He went to Kalocsa to see the parents of these two girls and was able to talk with them. Then he returned to army. When he finally arrived home in 1948, he met some of the relatives of the family, who then owned the house where they had lived. He bought the house from them and was still living in it in 1991.

Some of the Jewish people tried to escape persecution by changing their faith, becoming Calvinist or Catholic. But this didn’t help, since the 1941 Census formed the basis for the rapid deportations, and they were taken away as well. However, they went to work in several Christian houses before being deported. There was a Jewish man who lived and slept in Anna’s house, and many years after one of his relatives came back and asked whether they could visit the house and remember ‘the old things that happened here’ because he got food and shelter there, and was sleeping there. But they didn’t come back. We don’t know what happened to them.

On the other hand, a lot of Hungarian men were told they would get the land or houses or shops of the Jewish people if they helped them to rid the village of them, and many wanted to do this. It is unlikely that they were from the same village, or that this was done more than a few hours beforehand, however, since rumours would have forewarned the intended victims. Hungarian forces, including the Arrow Cross, carried out the ‘evictions’. The witnesses all reported that, at this stage, the Germans didn’t really come into the village, but those people who became Communists after the Russians came in had supported the Fascists before. They were the same people, but they changed their minds!

When the Jews had to leave this village, Anna saw a little girl in someone’s lap, crying, ‘don’t let me go away, I want to stay here’, but she had to go as well. Everybody had to leave this village. When the Jews had to leave the village, they didn’t want to leave their houses and were wailing at the walls. They were kissing the walls with their lips and caressing them with their hands. The children were crying. It was really terrible. Some of the Christian families who lived close to the Jews went to the Jewish houses to say goodbye, and it was a very sad event, such a sad thing that they cannot forget it.

All the witnesses agreed in their evidence that the village people who weren’t Jewish couldn’t do anything to save their Jewish neighbours. The villagers also told us how they had watched from the nearby woods, in secret disbelief, as the soldiers took the Jews away in May 1944. They went on carts from the village to Kalocsa, which although further south of Budapest along the Danube, was apparently used as an assembly point for the Hungarian Jews being sent to the concentration camps. The villagers all stated that they did not know this at the time.

So, when the Jewish people were taken away from the village, nobody knew anything about where they would go. When the Jewish people had to leave the village, they went by horse and cart to Kalocsa, some with their non-Jewish servants driving, so unaware were they of the ghastly reality which awaited them.  All anyone knew was that they would stay for a while in Kalocsa, but nothing else.

Explaining their apparent ‘naivety’ at the time of the deportations, the witnesses referred to the apolitical nature of Hungarian country people. The people of Apostag were no exception to this. We were told that they ‘preferred not to deal with political matters’ and ‘preferred to work rather than talking about politics’. They were simple, unsophisticated, agricultural workers, unlike the residents of Budapest, but they remember very clearly what happened to the Jewish people. It all happened very quickly, because the German troops came in on 19th March 1944, and they were taken away in May.

On his return to working as a soldier, János became a courier – his task was to carry letters from one town to another. He became more aware of what was happening in all the parts then controlled by the Hungarian Army. He met some Hungarian Jews in Yugoslavia and shared some pálinka (brandy) with them. They were very grateful, because they couldn’t get anything like that usually. They were rich, well-educated, but they had to remain and work in Yugoslavia.

After the war, very few Jewish people were able to return to this village. Only the Cantor and six of the six hundred deported Jews returned to live in the village, according to the synagogue’s records. These included two young women and a two couples, on of which were known to be living in Budapest in 1991. The other husband and wife had both died in the village by that time, as had the two young women. In addition some of their relatives came to settle the families’ affairs. They could find only some of their houses, however, and they sold these houses to other people. The land that belonged to the Jewish people had already been taken over by the co-operatives, so they could only sell their houses. Nothing could be seen of them in 1991, and nothing was written down. Only a very few houses could be seen in their original state, because many had become ruined, but there were some which could be viewed. There was one which was a kindergarten to which Pál went there as a child in 1921-23.  A Jewish man gave this land and the building. His name was Lajos Hetényi, and for many years there was a marble plaque on the kindergarten, a memorial to him. The building can still be seen, but not the memorial.

Anna remembers that from one of the families which was taken away, only the daughter could return. When Anna heard that the daughter had returned to their house, she went there to meet her, but she was very bitter. When Anna asked her how she was and what had happened to her, the daughter told her that it had been really terrible for her. They had had to do the most menial, basic hard labour, carrying bricks and doing everything that is not good for a woman.

Another couple came back after the war. One day, they asked to borrow a hoe to repair the hedges around the garden gate, and they did this, but couldn’t go on living in the building, because it was too full of people they didn’t know. So they moved to another house in the village. She came to Anna’s house one day, to get some milk. This couple had converted to Catholicism by then, but the woman told Anna that she found it difficult to worship in Hungarian, that she could only worship in the Hebrew. The couple died here in Apostag.

Otherwise, it was mainly the relatives of the Jewish people who returned to sell the houses, not those who had lived in them themselves.

The witnesses all said that they felt sorry for the Jews, as did 99% of the population of the village. There were those who were still jealous of them because of their prosperity, but most people liked them and couldn’t imagine how it could have happened.

The Continuation and Conclusion of the War, 1944-5:

During the war, there wasn’t any fighting in the village itself, but in the neighbourhood there was a lot. Only a few people died due to bombing, and only one bomb fell on the village itself. There was a woman who had just given birth and she died, but the child survived.

In the village, there were some German soldiers towards the end of the war. There was one in his parents’ house and he asked him whether the Germans would win the war and he replied, ‘naturliche, yah!’, (‘of course’), but only he was sure of it, nobody else. There wasn’t really any fighting in the village. The Russian troops did run through the village, but they couldn’t go to the other side of the Danube because the bridge had been bombed, so they stayed outside the village.

Anna remembered that on 3 November 1944 a lot of Russian soldiers came into this village, and her father told them that no matter what happened, they always had to give food to the soldiers, whether they are German, Russian or Hungarian, and then they wouldn’t do any harm. She remembers that one day soldiers came and knocked at the door and she wanted to give them some bread and bacon. Next day they came back and she gave them some pork and from that day on they came back every day to have breakfast, lunch and supper, and she always had to give them some food. One day they didn’t appear any more, and they didn’t know what happened to them. A lot of people stayed in their living room, Russian soldiers, and they were even sleeping on the table, because there were no more bed-spaces for them on the floor. So it was really terrible, but it was the war, so no one could help this.

The first Russian troops were very kind, only looking for German soldiers in the sewers, and they collected only small amounts of food from the villagers. But those who came later were terrible. They collected everything they could find. His family had a small pig they had somehow saved, and they kept it in the house, out of sight. To keep him quiet they gave him corn all the time. He became so fat that he couldn’t even stand, just sit, and in the end they gave him to an abattoir in Budapest to get some money.

The Russian soldiers collected some goods in another village and gave them to this village as a present. They had a pair of oxen, each ox with only one eye, so it was difficult to arrange them so that they could see to do their work! There were some Russian soldiers who didn’t want to return with the army, and they tried to help with the housework around the village houses and they were told to go to the edge of the village, because there were cereals there and they wanted to use the oxen to bring them into the village. So, one Russian soldier went in front of the oxen and one went behind, and on the other side of the Danube there were Fascistic Hungarian soldiers and they began shooting because they thought the cart was carrying military equipment. So it was dangerous for the oxen as well as the Russians!

Later, a lot of Hungarian people were deported to the Soviet Union for hard labour. Pál was one of them, but he managed to escape. He was allowed to stay in Hungary, but under forced labour, and he helped to build a wooden bridge near the Danube which was bombed and a lot of people were killed there. In 1944, on Christmas Night, more than a hundred people of the village were sent to build the bridge at the Danube. There was an aeroplane, they still don’t know to today whether it was German or Russian, they just thought that it must be German, and it dropped a bomb, and 43 people died. Pál wasn’t working there at the time it actually happened, but he had the memorial plaque placed on the Town Hall, because he could so easily have been killed there. There were some other deaths after that, but not many.

The Aftermath:

The Synagogue was ruined only by the passing of time. After the war it was in a very good state, and in the winter of 1944/45  soldiers were camped there and the people brought them food and blankets. There was a sign on the side of the synagogue written in Hebrew, but it’s not there nowadays, so nobody knows what it said. Later it became a cereal storehouse. The roof became ruined, but it had been restored by 1987, though there are some differences. For example, the gate is on the other side from where it was. Anna remembered this from playing there. When they were restoring the Synagogue and building the library, they found many broken glasses under the bimah. After the priest blessed the newly married couple, they broke a glass under their feet, the idea being that they were allowed to divorce only when this glass became a whole glass again. So when they were rebuilding the synagogue they found a lot of broken glasses. They also built a passage on one side of the (reconstructed) synagogue, but Anna remembered that she was playing there one day and she cut the cat’s whiskers, so she remembered that there wasn’t (originally) a passage there!

It was only in the 1950s that the people in the village found out what had happened to the Jews. János first heard something in 1946, because he was in the army. The Hungarian people couldn’t do anything to stop this, though they felt sorry for them; they were frightened for their own lives. Ordinary people couldn’t imagine that this could happen. Not only the Jewish people, but also a lot of Hungarian people were told to leave their towns and villages, and they had to go to the Soviet Union and work there. It was not only what happened to the Jewish people that was so tragic, but also what happened to the Hungarian soldiers who were put into forced labour in the Soviet Union (János was there for three years). Those who were taken prisoner by the Soviet troops could only return home years after, maybe even fifty years later. There were some who could come home only last year (1990). One old man spent five years in the Soviet Union. This could happen to everybody and anybody, though only the Jewish people died in gas chambers, or were starved to death.

In the 1956 Revolution there was no fighting in the village, but there were a number of ‘interesting events’. The soldiers beat some of the teachers through the streets because they were thought to have encouraged the young to rebel. At the end of October, one man was caught climbing over a gate into a wine cellar owned by a company of merchants, because he wanted to get his money out of the safe that was kept inside.

The Village in the Nineties:

In 1991 the Evangelical congregation hadn’t got a priest, they had only the church, which is the largest church in the village. They didn’t know what the future of the congregation would be, because they couldn’t really do what they wanted. It was also seen as a sad fact that the younger people had ‘escaped’ from the village because they didn’t want to work in the co-operatives, day and night, without earning money, so they had ‘escaped’ to other parts.

The village had changed a lot since Anna was a child, she felt. They were all together before the war, and it was only one community, but in 1991 it was split.

After the war János became a tradesman, dealing in animal husbandry, especially in beef cattle. He came home from Russia in 1948 and he didn’t think we could imagine how very difficult that time was for them. Not only the Jewish families suffered from the war, but everyone who lived here, either as a citizen or as a soldier. When he came back, as regards the ‘faith’, that time was a turning point in Hungarian life, because the churches and their social services were nearly destroyed by the Soviets, and there were also so many other problems. It was a great shame, but there were so many other problems at that time, both historically and in private lives.

The sorrow felt about the deportations lessened a little when the Hungarian people had their own troubles after the war and during the forty years following the communist takeover, when they had to deal with their own problems and didn’t have time to think about the Jewish people. Nowadays, it’s becoming easier to think about these problems again, and they feel solidarity for those families. They try to remember and to commemorate the families. If they were not thinking about these people with joy and love in their hearts, and if they didn’t love them, then they wouldn’t have kept them in our memories. We wouldn’t even be able to use their names to talk about them. The Primary School is named after the Hetényi family, and the garden is called the Ákos garden, and many of the shops have kept the names of the Jewish people. The Jewish names live in the language of the people, because they are still used to refer to fields and parcels of land after the Jewish people who owned them before, in spite of the fact that they have changed hands more than once. That’s because the names are written in the hearts of the people.

The Church leaders felt that God had helped them during this difficult period, these forty years, and that they had to believe that he would help them in the future. In 1989-91, these forty years were usually mentioned as the reason for everything that was really bad then, and it’s the same with the churches, so people often said that they were in a bad state because of these forty years. But most of the children could be members of the different churches and the parents of these children, who weren’t allowed to go to churches previously, could take their children there. They hoped that these children would remain as members when they became adults. For their parents, there was no Religious Education in schools either, so people under the age of forty have no experience of such classes.

004 The Library in the Village House (former synagogue), Apostag, 1991.

References & Bibliography:

Bart, István (1999), Hungary & The Hungarians. Budapest: Corvina Books.

History of the Jews in Hungary:  en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungarian_Jews

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostag

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Herzl

 

Atrocities and Announcements   1 comment

Luke IV, xvi-xxi:

‘And Jesus came home to Nazareth and on a holiday went as usual into the Assembly and began to read. They gave him the book of the prophet Isaiah; and unrolling it he read. In the book was written: The spirit of the Lord is in me. He has chosen me to announce happiness to the unfortunate and the broken-hearted, to announce freedom to those who are bound, light to the blind, and salvation and rest to the tormented, to announce to all men the day of God’s mercy. He folded the book, returned it to the attendant, and sat down. And all waited to hear what he would say. And he said to them: That writing has now been fulfilled before your eyes.’ (Tolstoy’s ‘Gospel in Brief’)

Auschwitz concentration camp, arrival of Hunga...

Auschwitz concentration camp, arrival of Hungarian Jews, Summer 1944 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sunday 27th January this year is the day on which the victims of the Holocaust are commemorated, together with those who have been more recent victims of genocidal atrocities in Europe, Africa and throughout the world.

English: This is a map of first century Iudaea...

English: This is a map of first century Iudaea Province that I created using Illustrator CS2. I traced this image for the general geographic features. I then manually input data from maps found in a couple of sources. Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar. The Acts of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco: 1998. p. xxiv. Michael Grant. Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels. Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1977. p. 65-67. John P. Meier. A Marginal Jew. Doubleday: 1991. p. 1:434. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Jesus ‘announced’ the beginning of his ministry in the synagogue, he was in the middle of recruiting his disciples in Galilee. He had just returned from staying with John the Baptist, together with Philip and Andrew, the fishermen from Bethsaida. Andrew introduced his brother Simon to Jesus, who renamed him Peter, perhaps because he already had a close friend called Simon in his company. Philip’s brother Nathaniel, also from Bethsaida, was surprised that he of whom the prophets wrote should come from a neighbouring village, joking that it was unlikely that God’s messenger could come out of such a place as Nazareth. Obviously, local rivalry was strong between the relatively prosperous lakeside fishing ports and the poorer hillside villages. However, Nathaniel joined the small band of brothers already following the man from Nazareth. This may already have included the other Simon, a member of the Jewish Resistance hiding out in the hills, Simon the Zealot. He may well have been from Jaffa, the mother town of the Nazareth hamlet, two miles away. It was well-known as a Zealot town, the centre for several thousand men who were farmers or fishermen by day and ‘freedom fighters’ whenever the chance came. Later, Jesus met five thousand of them by the lakeside, looking like a leaderless rabble, a flock of sheep without a shepherd. He went back with them to the hills, out of sight of the Roman garrison at Capernaum, talking and breaking bread with them in companies of fifty, rank by rank, until late into the evening. Simon was probably one of those who wanted Jesus to stay in the hills and become their chief, but Jesus went off alone to think carefully about the different path he had envisaged for himself and his followers. They wanted revenge for the atrocities committed by the Romans, which were all, still within living memory, including that of 63 B.C. when some of the Judeans had barricaded themselves in the temple-fortress of Jerusalem.

Pompey, the Roman general, built a huge ramp on the north side and brought up his battering rams. However, the strong temple walls stood up for three months until one of the towers gave way and the legionaries poured through the breach. In the massacre that followed, twelve thousand people died. Pompey himself broke into the ‘Holiest Room’ of the Temple, where only the Chief Priest was allowed to go. This was an act of sacrilege which the Jews could not forgive. A century later, thirty years after Jesus’ life, the Zealots did gain their revenge when they ‘liberated’ Jerusalem in the war with Rome, destroying all the legal documents which recorded Jewish ‘debts’ to Rome, breaking up the landed estates and setting the slaves free. But Jesus had argued with them that violence was not God’s way, especially the ‘terrorism’ of the Zealots. When he rejected their offer to turn them into a more regular, disciplined ‘guerilla’ army, many of them abandoned him. Simon was one of the few who did not. Even the people of his own village turned against him, whereas he had always been well-liked as a young man. ‘No Man of God is liked by his own kin-folk’ he told them. They were even prepared to throw him off a nearby cliff, and, escaping from their grasp, he was unable ever to return, travelling incognito in the vicinity. It didn’t help that he continued to fraternize with some of the Roman soldiers in Capernaum.

Jesus’ words show us how appalled he was at the suffering and evil that violence, even in a good cause, brought. He quoted some of the prophets’ poems, and his own poems echoed their spirit:

‘…you did not see that God has come to you in love, not war’

‘There will be great distress among men,

and a terrible time for this people.

They will fall at the point of a sword

and be scattered as captives throughout the world.

Foreign soldiers will tramp the city’s streets

until the world is really God’s world’.

Already by the first century, there were more Jews living outside of Palestine than within it. It’s been estimated that there were two million living in Judea and four million elsewhere, so the ‘diaspora’ or dispersal had taken place gradually, before the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 A.D. following the Zealot Uprising. There had been forced deportations to Babylon, where a million Jews still lived, but most of the others were ‘economic’ exiles who traded around the Mediterranean from North Africa to Egypt to Syria, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. They had to preserve their identity in a dominant culture which was predominantly Greek. They were therefore often organised into communities within city states, with a degree of self-government. In this context, the Medieval idea that the Jews as a ‘Nation’ were responsible for the death of Christ, which perhaps developed because Hellenistic Judaism later gave way to Christianity, would have been anathema to first century Palestinians. Even if we take Jesus’ parables, lamentations and prophecies as referring to Judea, they clearly refer to the religious leaders, the lawyer class and the ruling Pharisees in the Sanhedrin, not to the ‘Nation’ as a whole.

nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal during meeting (e...

nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal during meeting (event) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This tendency to make an entire ‘nation’ or people responsible for historical events is what leads to a cycle of vengeance and violence which Jesus came to break. It ends in mass genocide, from the pogroms of the middle ages to Rwanda and Bosnia. But it also repeats itself in making Turkey responsible for actions taken by Ottoman Turks in the First World War, or the German People as a whole responsible for the Holocaust. For some years after the Second World War, American GI’s were given guides to de-Nazification which did just this and urged them see themselves as agents sent to purge the Germans of a deep psychosis of racism and militarism which, of course, had in fact been prevalent in other early twentieth century ‘civilisations’, not least among the British, who ‘invented’ the Science of Eugenics and thus the theories of racial superiority, as well and ‘the instrument of the Concentration Camp’ in which Boer women and children died of disease. As Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter, pointed out, the idea of collective guilt is not helpful in achieving justice and reconciliation. Individuals and organisations are responsible for atrocities, not whole peoples and nations. When we accept our individual responsibility for our own actions, we break the cycle of violence and add another link to the peace chain.

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