Walking home today from an Easter Monday walk in Budapest, we unexpectedly came upon an artist, Tibor Szilagyi, trying to challenge the government’s “Germany Made Us Do It” statue project in Freedom Square. Tibor wanted to protest the government’s planned statue, which aims to absolve Hungarians from any Holocaust guilt.

Tibor’s art installation was three large tree branches formed into a “tree,” each carrying one word written on a white streamer: “beauty,” “truth” and “goodness.” Two police stood warily nearby, guarding the site. This has been a confusing assignment for them. Every day the government’s workmen try to build up the base of the statue, and every day Hungarian protesters politely deconstruct it piece by piece. The police video this illegal activity, but aren’t arresting people yet. They wait and watch as people like Tibor work to create a counter-message on the site, one that seeks to honor the 560,000 Jews, Roma and other innocents killed almost entirely by fellow Hungarians during World War 2. Hungary was Germany’s ally until near the end, when the government tried to change sides, as they saw the Axis losing the war.

Some, like Prime Minister Viktor Orban, argue that Hungary had no choice, because if it didn’t ally with Germany from the beginning, it would have been invaded, like Czechoslovakia, and the Jews would have been killed sooner. Hungarian Regent Miklos Horthy tried to protect the Jews, under this interpretation, and nearly succeeded until the end of the war, when the Germans marched in to Budapest, rounded them up and send them to Auschwitz. But this account overlooks the decades of official Hungarian anti-Semitic laws and activities, including willing Hungarian complicity throughout the war in creating Jewish and Roma slave labor camps where thousands died, episodes of rounding up Jews from the countryside, and killing them; and the wholesale theft of Jewish businesses, property and jobs well before the Germans took over in 1944. Hungary allied with Germany in World War Two to get back the lands it lost the last time they joined together, as allies in World War One. In the end, it was Hungarians who shipped the Jews off to the death camps, or tied them together and shot them into the Danube in 1944. Only about 200 German troops were in Budapest at the time.

We were amazed to see how, in front of Tibor’s “tree,” the embattled scaffolding for the government’s statue has become a beautiful protest memorial of handmade signs, pictures, stones, and candles to honor the Holocaust dead.  Someone placed two empty white chairs facing each other, to represent the lack of dialogue in Hungary about this painful history. Hungarians’ real roles are not discussed openly or honestly in most official textbooks; Holocaust guilt is not a widespread source of concern here. But the Fidesz government, to promote nationalist pride, has gone too far now, blaming Hungary’s German allies for everything that happened.

Tibor was taking the makeshift Freedom Square anti- memorial to a new level. The police decided today to call in reinforcements. Soon there were eight uniformed officers huddling around the artist. He smiled and chatted with passersby, while the officers looked puzzled about what to do. We were delighted to see the U.S. Charge D’Affaires, Andre Goodfriend, taking pictures of the scene and inquiring about what was going on. 

 We all took pictures, and, sensing that there was no violent confrontation in store, went home. If this shows up in the news here tomorrow, it will almost certainly be about a troublemaker who wanted to erect an illegal monument and disrupt the civil order. And it could well be about foreigners who don’t want Hungarians to be proud.

I hope Tibor is proud, and I would like to respect the pride of all Hungarians. But that would require that these whitewashing official historians face the truth honestly. That is the only way to build a future that can’t be torn down, plank by plank, every time a new government comes to power.

 

 

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