Hungarian Church Cancels Event Honoring Nazi Ally on Holocaust Remembrance Day After Jewish Protest

World Jewish Congress president called event 'provocative measure'; deputy speaker of Hungarian parliament was due to attend

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban attends a joint news conference with Polish Prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki (not pictured) in Budapest, Hungary January 3, 2018. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
\ BERNADETT SZABO/REUTERS

A Budapest church has called off a memorial mass it was planning to hold in honor of a former Hungarian leader and Nazi ally on Saturday – International Holocaust Remembrance Day – after protests from Hungarian Jews and the World Jewish Congress.

The Hungarian parliament's deputy speaker, Sandor Lezsak, a member of the ruling Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, had been due to speak at the event called in memory of interwar Governor Miklos Horthy.

Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, called the planned presence of Lezsak provocative and disturbing.

“The terror that Admiral Horthy, an unabashed anti-Semite, inflicted on the Jewish community of Hungary by allowing them to be stripped of their rights and their humanity, and his role in the deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews, must never be forgotten and can never be excused,” Lauder wrote Orban. "In fact, it is one of the critical lessons the international community can learn in Holocaust education.”

Lauder wrote that Lezsak's presence at such an event was “nothing short of a provocative measure,” adding that it was “truly disturbing that it is being given legitimacy through the participation of a high dignitary of Hungary." He urged Orban to prevent Lezsak from attending.

The planned ceremony for Horthy, an admiral who led Hungary for 24 years until 1944 and handed over hundreds of thousands of Jews to the Nazis, triggered strong objections from Jewish organisations.

With the WJC declaring it a provocative measure honoring an "unabashed anti-Semite," the Budapest church which had organized the Catholic ceremony canceled the event on Thursday.

The affair, ahead of a parliamentary election on April 8, has thrown a spotlight again on the policies of Orban, who has an ambivalent track record on anti-Semitism.

He has repeatedly pledged zero tolerance for anti-Semitism, though he has called Horthy an "exceptional statesman." He has risked angering Israel and Jewish people with remarks about "ethnic homogeneity" apparently aimed at radical right-wing voters ahead of the April 8 election.

He has also used a massive billboard campaign against U.S. billionaire George Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew, to promote an anti-immigrant agenda that critics, including Soros, say harks back to the 1930s. The government strongly rejects this.

Zoltan Osztie, the priest of the Budapest church, said the church had a tradition of organizing a mass for Horthy each year and nobody had noticed that Saturday was also International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which marks the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

"We could be blamed for this perhaps, but these two events can not be juxtaposed. Nonetheless, after discussion with church leaders a decision has been made that neither the memorial ceremony nor the mass will take place," he told szemlelek.blog.hu.

WJC President Ronald S. Lauder asked Orban to intervene, calling the event "nothing short of a provocative measure."

"The terror that Admiral Horthy, an unabashed anti-Semite, inflicted on the Jewish community of Hungary ... and his role in the deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews, must never be forgotten and can never be excused," Lauder wrote in a letter to Orban.

The government did not reply to Reuters questions.

After Hungary's occupation by Germany in March 1944, still under Horthy's rule, Hungarian gendarmes and state organizations collaborated in the deportation of close to half a million Jews. Horthy stopped the deportations only in July 1944.