Former U.S. anti-Semitism Envoy Warns of European Governments Trying to Distort Holocaust History

'The things we were seeing in Hungary and Poland had also become a major point of concern,' says Ira Forman, U.S. State Department's former special envoy

First Lady of the U.S. Melania Trump, U.S. President Donald Trump and Polish President Andrzej Duda stand in front of the Warsaw Uprising Monument at Krasinski Square, in Warsaw, Poland July 6, 2017.
CARLOS BARRIA/REUTERS

This week, two events that made headlines in Israel and among the U.S. Jewish community turned attention to attempts by Eastern European governments to downplay and distort their countries' histories with regards to the Holocaust.

The first event was a diplomatic skirmish between Israel and Hungary over the Hungarian prime minister's speech praising Miklós Horthy, Hungary's leader during World War II who was complicit in the mass extermination of the country's Jewish population.

The second was U.S. President Donald Trump's speech in Warsaw on Thursday, in which he praised the Polish people for the 1944 anti-Nazi uprising, but, in accordance with the line of the current government in Poland, didn't mention any Polish involvement in the Holocaust.

The current governments of Poland and Hungary share a somewhat similar approach to their countries' dark history concerning the Holocaust. Over recent years, both governments have been trying to downplay that history and present events that took place during the Nazi occupation of the two countries as if they were entirely the Germans' fault, with little to no responsibility falling on the local governments and populations.

Viktor Orban, Hungary's far-right prime minister, was accused last week by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum of trying to rewrite history and of insulting the victims of the Holocaust.

Poland, meanwhile, passed a bill last year that criminalizes the use of phrases pointing at Polish responsibility to the mass murder of the country's Jewish population.

Ira Forman, who from 2013 to 2017 served as the State Department's special envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, told Haaretz on Thursday that this trend was one of the most important issues he and his staff had to deal with during his last year in office.

"Every year we would do some kind of reassessment on what are the main problems in the world with regards to anti-Semitism," says Forman. "Two to three years ago, I would have told you the largest concern had to do with violence against Jews in Western Europe, especially after the 2014 Gaza war. That problem hasn't gone away, but by 2016 the things we were seeing in Hungary and Poland had also become a major point of concern." 

U.S. Department of State

Forman doesn't share the criticism that some people raised toward Trump's speech on Thursday, and says he would have been surprised if the president chose to criticize instances where some Poles had engaged in anti-Semitic violence during a state visit to the country.

The more important question, he says, is what the U.S. government plans to do with regards to attempts by the governments of Poland, Hungary and perhaps also other countries to distort history and erase their governments' or their citizens' responsibility for persecuting and murdering Jews.

"The Polish government seems to take great offense in any mention of any Polish individuals being involved in the Holocaust or committing acts of anti-Semitism," says Forman.

"They have a lot of things in their history to be proud of as a nation, but there are also bad things. And if you as a nation can't face that, you've got a problem," he adds. "Going as far as promoting legislation which essentially poses a threat to serious scholarship and research into the Holocaust is wrong and dangerous."

Forman emphasizes that the governments in Hungary and Poland have also made some positive steps when it comes to cooperating with the local Jewish communities. However, he adds, by honoring and commemorating people who actively assisted the Holocaust in Hungary, the current Hungarian government "took steps that ensured they were always on our radar" during his four years as special envoy.

One event that drew an international controversy was a 2015 plan to erect a statue honoring Bálint Hóman, a nationalistic Hungarian politician who promoted anti-Semitic legislation in the 1930s and ’40s, and enthusiastically supported cooperating with Nazi Germany during World War II. Hóman also supported the deportation of Hungary's Jewish population during the German occupation of Hungary.

The current Hungarian government, under the leadership of Orban, intervened only after severe pressure from the United States, European diplomats, major Jewish organizations and the Israeli government. "You just aren't supposed to honor people like that," says Forman.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to visit Budapest and meet with Orban next week. Israel and Hungary have strong bilateral ties, but as Haaretz reported earlier this week, the Israeli government quietly demanded Hungary clarify Orban's recent statement praising Horthy.

While the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum publicly slammed Orban for the statement, Israel settled on a vaguely worded clarification, in order not to upset the upcoming visit.

"It is not my place to give advice to the government of Israel," Forman says when asked what he thinks Netanyahu should do about Orban's statements. "All I can say is that there is a lot of expertise about this issue in Israel, including in the Foreign Ministry, and I hope it will be used. I understand that there are different considerations involved here, including the importance of good diplomatic relations with different countries."

As an American citizen and former State Department official, Forman is primarily concerned with how the United States government will handle the subject. So far, under the Trump administration, it hasn't. Orban's comments did not evoke any response from the United States, and Poland's controversial policies seemingly didn't come up at all during Trump's visit. 

That could perhaps change if the administration decides to staff the office of the special envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, something it has not yet done and doesn't seem interested in doing – despite pressure from Congress and major Jewish organizations.

Forman says the events in Hungary and Poland are just one reason why it is important to keep the position and devote resources to it, so that senior policymakers in Washington will be aware of attempts to distort the history of the Holocaust and able to act against them.