Hungarian Jews: Angry About the Holocaust but Unworried About Today’s anti-Semitism

Hungary still has difficulty dealing with its collaboration with the Nazis and the anti-Semitic Jobbick Party isn't making that any easier. The Jews, however, are still more worried by an illiberal government than to threats aimed at them. The Cossacks Aren't Coming: A special series on the future of European Jews.

Karli Iskakova

BUDAPEST – On the southern side of Budapest’s Liberty Square are two new memorials. One, erected by the Hungarian government, is an iron statue of the archangel Gabriel, symbolizing the innocent people of Hungary, about to be ravaged by the talons of a cruel giant eagle – Germany. Erected overnight last July, the statue, flanked by marble pillars, some of them broken, is – according to an adjoining sign in a number of languages, including Hebrew – “In Memory of the Victims.” It’s that very generality, the clear inference that all Hungarians were victims of the Nazi occupier, that has angered Hungary’s Jews. The unveiling caused a six-month break in all official contact between the community establishment and the government, as well as the withdrawal of Jewish organizations from official events commemorating 70 years since the German occupation and deportation of Hungarian Jews to the death camps.

Karli Iskakova

Shortly after the monument went up, just a few meters away from the statues, between the opposite railings, individual Jews began building their own alternative memorial. Strands of barbed wire, little shoes, suitcases, stones with names on them and plastic laminated photographs and sheets of paper with the stories of parents and grandparents deported with the help of local Hungarians and murdered in Auschwitz, along with exhortations to remember and not distort the past. Together these people have created a simple, personal yet extremely poignant counterpoint to the grotesque kitschiness of the official monument.

What is perhaps surprising is that the Hungarian government or local Budapest authorities have not removed this private, makeshift memorial. The two conflicting narratives of Hungary’s record during World War Two are for now allowed to exist opposite each other.

Victims-collaborators

Like just about every other European country which came under German occupation during the war, Hungary has a contradiction between its status as a victim of the Third Reich and the level of collaboration of its citizens, particularly in regard to their assistance in the deportation of their Jewish neighbors.

The narrative whereby Hungary suffered under German rule obscures the fact that until occupation in March 1944, it had been a member of the Axis powers, contributing soldiers who fought alongside the Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Once deportations began in May, nearly 450,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz, where over 90 percent were immediately sent to the gas chambers. Deporting such a large number in just seven and a half weeks was possible only with the participation of Hungarian authorities. Nearly all the Jews living outside Budapest had been rounded up by the time Regent Myklos Horthy ordered a halt – and even after that, massacres continued, carried out by Hungarian fascists.

A historical reckoning has never been simple. Under Communism, Jewish suffering was never allowed to be recognized and the fact that Jews, including leader Matyas Rakosi, were prominent in the postwar administration, further muddied the waters (though Rakosi and his colleagues had all repudiated their Judaism).

“It was difficult for the locals to accept their responsibility when the neighbor they had sent to his death returned,” says Budapest-born Chabad rabbi Shlomo Koves. “It has been sitting on the Hungarian conscience ever since. When in the 1950s there was a tyrant of Jewish origins (Rakosi), they felt it was revenge.”

Today’s Hungarian leaders all grew up in the period when children were taught in school about “victims” with no specific mention of the Jews. In the current nationalist fervor of local politics, any admission of Hungarian complicity is fraught with electoral risk. A government committee is reviewing the national curriculum taught in local schools. The Jewish community has a representation there and the committee recently even met historians from Israel, but it is an ongoing battle.

The alternative memorial in Budapest’s Liberty Square. Photo by Karli Iskakova

Reads parts 1-4 of The Cossacks Aren’t Coming here:

Part 1, Krakow: The Jewish Community Center on the doorstep of Auschwitz

Part 2, Krakow, continued: An unexpected generation of Polish Jews is coming out of the closet

Part 3, Budapest: Fork in the road for young Jews in Budapest: Tradition or tikkun olam

Part 4, Denmark: A wake-up call for Danish Jewry, not a siren call to head for Israel

Zoltan Kovacs, the Hungarian government’s spokesperson to international media, says his country’s different historical narratives are “fragile issues.” He believes that Jews must also take into account that during the war “there were many hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who felt victims of German occupation, and it’s painful for Hungarians as well as it is for Jews. But we’re not trying to relativize.” The new Hungarian constitution specifically points out that from March 1944 Hungary was under occupation, but Kovacs insists that emphasizing that “until the coming of the Germans, the Holocaust didn’t take place in Hungary and it was basically a refuge for Jews, doesn’t spare those Hungarians who participated.”

Relatively relaxed over anti-Semitism

While Hungarian Jews are up in arms over the way the Holocaust is portrayed in their country, they seem almost relaxed, comparatively, over the fact that the country’s third-largest party is openly anti-Semitic.

Jobbik, or Movement for a Better Hungary, of course officially denies that it is anti-Semitic, or even far-right for that matter. However, its appeal to a deeply nationalistic spirit in the Hungarian collective psyche, a long series of Judeophobic statements by its leading members calling for the registration of all Jews constituting a “national-security threat,” trivialization and downright denial of the Holocaust, issuance of a warning against “Israeli conquerors” arriving in Hungary, and commemoration of blood libels and leaders who collaborated with the Nazis, leave no doubt as to their true nature.

But despite Jobbik’s electoral success and appeal particularly to younger voters through their effective use of social media and the local rock music scene, most Jews I spoke to in Budapest feel they are not a serious threat. This is due largely to the stranglehold of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing Fidesz Party on all aspects of public life in Hungary, and partly because Jobbik’s main strongholds are outside the Budapest urban area where nearly all the Jews live, so those most under threat are members of the Roma (gypsy) minority, a more frequent and direct target of Jobbik’s supporters.

“Right now they have no power in parliament,” says Adam Szerenyi, a manager in an old age home owned by a Jewish foundation. “Some of the workers here vote for Jobbik, I even have a close friend who voted for Jobbik and most of his close friends are Jews like me. Most of them don’t vote Jobbik because of anti-Semitism, but because they’re from areas where there are lot problems with poverty and gypsies.”

Members of Jobbik, a Hungarian far-right party, attending the inauguration ceremony of the 'Hungarian Guard' in Budapest, Aug. 25, 2007. Photo by Reuters

“Jobbik’s appeal isn’t because of anti-Semitism but because they’re addressing issues that average Hungarians are worried about – the Roma, unemployment in the east and the European Union,” says Professor Michael Miller, a historian of the Jews of Central Europe who has been living in Budapest for 14 years. “Their hateful rhetoric isn’t primarily directed at Jews and their anti-Semitism isn’t such a major part of what they stand for,” Miller said.

“The question is whether Jobbik will use anti-Semitism for political motivation in the future,” says Professor Andrasz Kovacs, the leading researcher of contemporary Jewish life in Hungary. “In recent months I’ve seen a dialing back and it looks like the party leadership decided to keep a distance from Jewish subjects, for pragmatic reasons.” Instead, he says, they have shifted to criticizing Israel.

“Jobbik is pretending to be more moderate but they’re still a party of Holocaust deniers,” says Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital think tank in Budapest. “Like the National Front in France, they are now downplaying their anti-Roma and anti-Jewish statements to get closer to the mainstream and have greater influence in the political sphere.”

Everyone under threat, not just Jews 

But whatever Jobbik’s tactics may be, most Jews in Budapest don’t see them, or anti-Semitism in general, as their main concern.

”Jobbik is not the problem, they’re a bunch of idiots from the countryside,” says Eszter Fabriczki, managing director of a corporate service provider in Budapest. “The real threat here is Fidesz and the lack of democracy. This country is in trouble for everyone, educated people, minorities and Jews.”

The prevailing view is that anti-Semitism is more of a cultural issue and as long as Fidesz is in power, and he doesn’t seem likely to relinquish it any time soon, the darker forces of nationalism will be held in check. From the Jewish perspective, that also means that they will remain protected. Prime Minister Orban has a good relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has discussed with him the issues of anti-Semitism in Hungary and received repeated assurances.

Most Jews seem much more concerned with Hungary’s general political and financial situation than with any threat to Jews. In Budapest I heard many more Jews worried that with the control by Fidesz and Orban’s cronies of the business scene and the media, middle-class and liberal-minded professionals, which is what most young Jews here tend to be, have a very limited future in the country. Half a million young Hungarians, five percent of the population, are rumored to have emigrated in the last decade, seeking better opportunities.

“The Israeli and international media greatly exaggerate the threat of anti-Semitism here,” says Tommy Cohen Kovacs, CEO of an energy company who works mainly in Germany and Israel, but continues to live with his wife and three children in his birthplace Budapest. “Anti-Semitism can make things unpleasant here but it’s not dangerous. I’ve never suffered from any hostility. The problem is Hungary’s future.”

According to research carried out by Professor Kovacs, “Two-thirds [of Hungarians] are not anti-Semitic at all. One-third ascribe to old stereotypes and 15 percent can be defined as hardcore anti-Semites.” He says that while “anti-Semitism is quite loud and verbal, it’s not violent. There are a very few physical attacks and a bit of vandalism. Jews don’t have to be afraid here of walking in the street.”

Adam Szerenyi says, “The most direct anti-Semitic experience I ever had was a year ago on a bus to school when someone said, ‘Fucking Jews, it’s raining again.’” Like most Jews, he seems to believe that anti-Semitism in Hungary is more of an “old fashioned” characteristic of a xenophobic and very politically incorrect society. Hungary doesn’t seem capable of shaking those tendencies, but it bothers Jews more as a reflection of the general state of the country’s democracy, which Orban has himself described as “illiberal,” rather than as a sign of any rise in anti-Semitism. What still ties them to Hungary, and especially Budapest, is that this is their home, where their families have lived, in most cases despite the Holocaust and Communism, for over a century and a half.

Rooted to Hungary

The founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was born in Budapest, but he felt there was little hope of marketing the promised land to the comfortably well-off Jews of the Austro-Hungarian empire. There is still a feeling in Budapest today that most Jews there are too rooted to seriously consider emigrating for now. Many of those thinking of moving are not particularly attracted to living in Israel, either.

“I feel less safe when I’m in Israel with all the terror attacks and the missiles from Gaza,” says one young Jew. “We have Orban here ruining our democracy. You have Bibi doing the same,” says another.

“Jews tend more to be intellectuals and leftist liberals in Hungary,” says Luca Elek, a 27-year-old student who recently returned from three years at Hebrew University. “Being Jewish was not a major thing for them.” While Luca’s Jewish identity and a connection to Israel has become important to her, she says, “I want my kids to grow up where I did, and my family and friends are here and it’s my culture and theater that I love here. The question is the direction this country is going. On the other hand, education, healthcare, treatment of homeless and Roma is not good, so I don’t know how it will be when I have kids. But where will I go? This is not a good time anywhere in Europe with the attitude towards migrants and minorities, and Israel has very similar problems.”