Many people here still don’t regard the Jews and Roma of Hungary as real Hungarians. So the seeds of that original disaster remain in the culture. The far-right Jobbik party actively campaigns on these themes, blaming them for Hungary’s stagnant economy. The ruling Fidesz party—which will win re-election in April—is more duplicitous about this, speaking out of both sides of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s mouth. But lately Orban’s government has tipped the balance to the anti-Semitic, anti-Roma nationalistic side, hoping to steal Jobbik’s votes for their own Fidesz party in Hungary’s April 6 parliamentary elections.
Of course it isn’t easy, after all those years of Communism, to build a national economy that works. It’s even harder to create enough equity and mobility to inspire people to get a better education, take innovative risks, and build a safe and just community together. This requires accountability, and trust. These two qualities are hard to find in Hungary. Instead, the current political leaders like to blame some “outsiders” for conspiring “against the state” for their own gain. They say it is the Americans, the European Union, the socialist opposition, and, increasingly, it is the “Gypsies”, and the Jews. They are the reason the elected leaders cannot give you a decent life. These political leaders don’t seem to worry that are playing with fire; it’s not their responsibility to think about the Holocaust carried out by their relatives sixty years ago, in these very neighborhoods where I live and walk every day.
A recent visit to the Budapest Holocaust Memorial on Pava St. offered me the exact names, faces and fates of many of the people where were murdered by their countrymen during World War II. There are Hungarians living here today who looked the other way as their Jewish and Roma neighbors were carried off and murdered. Perhaps they even participated personally in the roundups. They had a lot to gain, especially the apartments and goods and jobs of the Jewish Hungarians, who were vital leaders of the Hungarian national culture and economy. In 1920, 22.7% of actors, 27.3% of writers and scientists, 17.6% of painters, 23.6% of musicians, 50.6% of lawyers, and 59.9% of physicians were Jewish, according to Yale historian Eva Balogh, who writes an anti-government blog, Hungarian Spectrum. Many of Budapest’s most admired buildings were designed by Jewish architects, but today’s school children are ignorant of these facts.
Even though the Hungarian government claims to be mobilizing the nation to remember the Holocaust under an international spotlight, there is no evidence of an honest discussion now in Hungary—or interest in showing school children the deserted memorial exhibit on Pava St.—to understand what happened, who did it, and how that could have been possible. This is in sharp contrast to Hungary’s ally in both world wars—Germany—which of course has always borne the greatest burden of guilt for the Holocaust, and has also done the best job of educating subsequent generations about the dangers of anti-Semitism, eugenics and race-based conspiracy theories.
A different history is being invented in Hungary these days, with new statues being erected in prominent locations, in order to exonerate Hungarians of any wrong-doing. The narrative is that brave Hungarians have always been the victims of outsiders—in the case of 1944, they now want to say it was all done by the Germans, plain and simple. There is a new statue, put up by a church that is officially sanctioned by the government, lionizing Hungarian Regent Miklos Horthy, who, they don’t care to mention, voluntarily allied Hungary with the Germans during World War II. (See the thumbnail picture of the Horthy statue at the top of this blog.)
The aristocratic Horthy, who presided over the laws robbing Jews of their property, jobs, and freedom to marry non-Jews, forcing them into slave labor, and causing the unnatural deaths of at least 60,000 Jews before 1944, has a contested legacy because of his attempt to change course in the final days of the war. He had entered into an alliance with Germany from the beginning, supporting the Nazis with soldiers, material, Jewish laborers, and propaganda, until they started to lose. In 1944, he tried to secretly withdraw Hungary from the Axis, but Germany found out, invaded Hungary, pushed him aside, and installed the more extreme Arrow Cross government. Together these Arrow Cross Hungarians and their German partners killed half a million Jews in the final four months of the war. A garden at the beautiful Dohany St. Synagogue—the second largest in the world—was originated after World War I to honor the Jews who had built the Hungarian nation and defended it during the war. In 1944 the garden instead became a mass grave for Hungary’s no longer “honored” Jews.
The statue of Horthy depicts him up as a nationalistic hero worthy of emulation. Now a second new statue–a project passionately put forward by Prime Minister Viktor Orban—will further depict the Hungarians as victims of the Germans. This fits well with the House of Terror museum, which Hungarian school children ARE taken to, in the former headquarters of both the Arrow Cross and the Communist secret police. There is a lot of blame here against the Allies who dismembered greater Hungary after World War I, against Communists, and against Germans. But there is no accountability here for what the Hungarian government did to its Jewish and Roma citizens during World War II, which is laid out in exquisite detail at the much less visited Pava Street memorial.
The good news is that there is international pushback against this second statue, which is an official project of the Orban government. Prominent Hungarian and American Jewish groups have withdrawn from the 70th anniversary Holocaust commemorations, and the controversy has stained the Orban regime. Hungarians who know him say that Orban is not himself an anti-Semite or even an anti-Roma racist; rather he finds it useful to stir up these nationalist emotions in order to further accumulate and exercise power.
Orban tries to have it both ways, deploying his EU-friendly cabinet officers to mollify the West, while actively funding anti-Semitic projects and people, winking as government-funded church schools re-segregate Roma children, and as government-supported apparatchiks rewrite the nation’s history. His government loses lawsuits and diplomatic skirmishes with the European Union, but nevertheless proceeds with impunity.
The most vulnerable and despised citizens in the Hungarian national narrative are the Roma (gypsy) people, who remain caught in a centuries-old complex dynamic of poverty, illiteracy and discrimination across Europe. The Hungarians have received millions of dollars from the European Union to help integrate their Roma population, which has lived here for over 400 years. The government has little to show for this investment. Here is a unique feature the Orban regime has introduced: if you declare officially that you are a member of the Roma minority, you are allowed on April 6 to vote ONLY for the Roma ticket—which features candidates only from Orban’s Fidesz ruling party.
A new report by my friend Magda Matache at Harvard’s FXB Center shows how anti-Roma violence is rising in Hungary. http://nalunknem.org/en/a-roma-kisebbsegnek-megkulonboztetessel-es-az-emberi-jogok-sulyos-serelmeivel-kell-szembe-neznie/ Zsolt Bayer–a racist who holds a top editorial job at a newspaper sanctioned by the Orban government , is a founding member of the Fidesz elite, a friend of Orban’s and a beneficiary of government funding–wrote in January 2013 that Roma are no better than animals, who do not deserve to live with the rest of us humans. Is this not what happened in the run-up to the Holocaust?
It is hard, in the face of all this, to live in this country. But even though I am a foreigner, I have found a way to stand up. I have sought out wonderful Hungarians who are working against these racist themes and practices. We have linked and energized each other with a project inspired by the Not In Our Town (www.niot.org) movement in the USA. We have had support from the US and Norwegian embassies, Central European University, and scores of Hungarian activist groups. ELTE social psychologist Gyorgy Csepeli, a prominent Hungarian scholar and public intellectual, is among those working with us to actively defuse the dangerous anti-Roma narrative. He is conducting workshops in towns around Hungary, talking people-to-people, trying to avoid the party politics that make honesty so difficult. Some times the Hungarian government is even on our side. It may be tokenism, but every bit of help is appreciated. Check out our project at www.nalunknem.org