Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 4
31 January 2000

Csardas C S A R D A S:
Jewish Life in Hungary, Part One

Gusztáv Kosztolányi

The offical line

During the Plenary Session of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust on Thursday 27 January, Mr István Stumpf presented the following address on behalf of Mr Árpád Göncz, President of the Republic of Hungary:

Mr/Madam Chairman, Excellencies,

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my honour to greet the participants of this International Forum on behalf of the Hungarian Government. It is my special privilege to convey to you the personal good wishes of Mr Árpád Göncz, President of the Republic of Hungary.

It is fifty-five years ago that the darkest chapter of European history and the most tragic period of the history of the Jewish people came to an end. Four hundred and forty thousand Jewish people of rural Hungary had been delivered to the Auschwitz extermination camp, most of them to be murdered immediately upon arrival. To complete this satanic job, the Nazis decided to wipe out the Jewish community of Budapest, too, the largest in Central Europe, as the Red Army was closing in on the Hungarian capital. Five hundred SS men and their Hungarian auxiliaries stood ready to turn the Budapest Ghetto into a graveyard.

But at the critical moment a handful of dedicated Hungarians succeeded in averting – at least in part – the impending disaster. Days later the Ghetto was liberated by advancing Russian troops. Those who survived did owe their lives to many known and unknown heroes who hid and concealed the persecuted, forged documents of false identities, or joined the international effort to save as many souls as possible. At the centre of this huge noble undertaking stood the young Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, and his associates, as well as other diplomats of neutral states active at the time in Budapest. The "visas for life" Wallenberg issued helped over ten thousand people to obtain a degree of relative security. Wallenberg`s undertaking, and that of thousands of known and unknown heroes, remain a legend of unparalleled human sacrifice in the midst of unspeakable human evil and cruelty.

We in Hungary deem it our duty to face our past, however difficult this may prove. The sense of grief that permeates us over the tragic loss of some half a million of our compatriots, is what makes it our moral obligation to perform our duty to the memory of our martyrs. Not until we can fully assert that the lesson has been learned, the conclusions drawn, their memory enshrined in our collective conscience and the survivors compensated as fully as possible, can we say that this has been achieved. Our consecutive democratic governments have done, in the course of the last ten years, all they possibly could to fulfil this pledge imposed on ourselves by our conscience. The achievements are convincing.

Racial incitement of any sort is strictly punished by law in Hungary. Incitement against national and ethnic minorities is prosecuted under Hungarian law, which also makes provisions for acts that create ill feelings against Jewish people by public denial of the Holocaust. Teaching about the Holocaust and its consequences is an integral part of the school curriculum on all levels of the Hungarian educational system. Education is one of the most important means to fight ignorance and hatred. Therefore we have declared 16th [the sixteenth] of April, the day of commemoration of the Holocaust. This means that every year on the 16th April all schools will remember the tragedy and the message that the Holocaust signals to us.

Much is done to encourage Jewish cultural revival. The conclusion of an agreement between the state and the main representative body of Jewish Hungarians has resulted in the restitution of real estate property confiscated during the Holocaust and subsequently never returned. A fund to compensate for the looted artefacts has been likewise set up. The Jewish community was offered regular financial assistance by the government to promote religious and communal activity. Indemnification on a personal basis has also been initiated. Hungary tried, even during our difficult times of restructuring, to make up for all the shortcomings of the past decades in healing the wounds of her Jewish citizens. The Hungarian government contributed large sums to the restoration of the Central Synagogue, the largest functioning synagogue in Europe. Just recently, our government has pledged to finance an ambitious programme to set up a National Holocaust Museum. Under that project, there will be a permanent Holocaust Memorial Exhibition in Budapest as soon as the reconstruction of the building, the Páva utca synagogue is completed.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We find a degree of comfort in the dateline we have just crossed, separating ourselves in time from a century we all remember with great unease. Never has humanity suffered so much and on such a grand scale. Never has human evil devised such torment and debasement for fellow humans. But the past century was also one of hope, a hope of peace and a better future. The memory of the Holocaust victims should constantly remind us of the value human life and dignity must be given in a new era meant to be promising for the entire human race. Let this conference, on the dawn of the new millennium, dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust, be the initiator of our great collective work.

Let us embark on an enterprise that aims to relegate racism to the confines of history. Let the better half, and I say with confidence, the great majority of mankind, adopt a creed of relentless work to eliminate ideas that mean to draw dividing lines between humans on the basis of colour, race or sex. When this we achieve, when we effectively uproot incitement, hatred, and banish discrimination from our new global civilisation, only then the martyrdom of the six million has been paid tribute to in deeds, not just words.

Mr Gusztáv Zoltai, President of Mazsihisz (A Magyarországi Zsidó Hitközösségek Szövetsége, the Confederation of Jewish Communities in Hungary), also at the Forum, pointed out that the fight against anti-Semitism was not a matter for the Jewish community alone, but that manifestations of right-wing extremism and racism should be a matter of concern to society as a whole. Mr Zoltai had met Ehud Barak at the Jewish World Congress and had extended a cordial invitation to him in the name of the Hungarian community to visit the country in the near future.

Understanding the credibility gap

Mr Stumpf's speech represents the official view of the government and the sentiments it expresses are laudable, although they are clearly tailored for mass consumption, to be delivered in the glare of television cameras before delegates gathered from all over the world as a demonstration of how Budapest does not balk at the task of working through the difficult legacy of a shameful past. His emphasis on compensation, for example, rings hollow. The 1992 law (Number 32) on compensation for individuals unlawfully deprived of their freedom and their lives for political reasons was a milestone in recognising that the Hungarian state bore direct responsibility for acts of violence and persecution against its own citizens.

In its opening passage, the law catalogues the sins of the past, whereby various forms of discrimination were enshrined in legislation and used as a basis for systematic and government-sanctioned wrongdoing. Citizens suffered "immeasurable damage", leading to loss of life as well as freedom and seizure of goods. The stated aim of the law is to remedy the injuries inflicted by wiping the slate clean, offering compensation as a gesture of reconciliation. The sum to be awarded for loss of life was set at one million forints [USD 3830], clearly a symbolic amount. In the course of the budgetary debate for 1999, however, the 1992 law was modified to reduce the amount mentioned above to a paltry 30,000 forints [USD 375], an insult to the bereaved families, compounding the flaws of the original text.

Péter Feldmayer, then President of Mazsihisz, responded in an article published in Magyar Hírlap (5 January):

It is a rare occurrence for Hungarian legislation to overtake processes at work in Europe and pre-empt them by a number of years. No matter how unbelievable it may seem, this is exactly what happened in conjunction with the laws on compensation, since the process of awarding compensation commenced in Hungary at a juncture when the issue had not been put in the glare of the spotlight even in the advanced democracies.

Miklós Németh's government set the ball rolling when it approved a pension supplement for the victims of persecution, and a long series of compensation laws began to be adopted later, following the collapse of Communism. The birth of law 32 of 1992 on compensation to be paid to victims unlawfully deprived of life and liberty on political grounds was preceded by the most highly-charged debate of all, perhaps because this was where the Hungarian government's conscience was pricked deepest. It had to adopt a stance, deciding whether to recognise the state's responsibility, on a moral plane as well, for the mass murders committed in the days of Fascism. The law provided a clear and unequivocal ideological response. It did not offer compensation to the Jewish inmates of enforced labour camps, who fought as slaves on the Eastern front, nor did it cover those who were murdered in the course of deportation or performing forced labour.

The compensation to be paid for those who were murdered represents partial recompense for the non-material damage done to those who lost their kin. In this respect, the Hungarian law on compensation is unique, since the laws on compensation paid to the relatives of the deceased in other countries do not even mention material damage, let alone recognise it. In the course of the Parliamentary debate on the subject held in 1992, the then opposition parties, the representatives of the MSZP [Socialists], Fidesz [Alliance of Young Democrats] and the SZDSZ [Liberals] attacked the stinginess of the bill, whilst the FKGP [Party of Independent Smallholders] demanded that the principle of full compensation be applied.

The law came into being, and its provisions were immediately contested by the organisations defending the interests of the citizens effected by it at the Constitutional Court. The verdict arrived at in the case clearly stated that everyone without exception was entitled to be treated with equal dignity as an individual, in other words that it was not possible to draw distinctions between one human being and another depending on the motives of the state and its servants in liquidating them.

Anyone who read the text of the resolution carefully must realise that constitutionally compensation must be paid not only in respect of those who were executed at the behest of a court, but also in respect of those who were annihilated in the death camps and in respect of those who met their deaths in the Gulag. In spite of this, the Horn government did not wish to pass a law that would have satisfied the requirements of the constitution.

Obviously there were no ideological roots to this phenomenon, but what had become of the former opposition, what of the staunch adherence to the concept of human equality manifested as part and parcel of being in the opposition? Again and again in the course of the preliminary debate, economic and political arguments clothed in complex explanations could be heard and all the protests, withdrawals from the chamber and arguments were in vain: the bill as it stood prior to the vote once again excluded the hundreds of thousands of relatives of those murdered on the grounds of their race from compensation.

The Constitutional Court ruling number 22/1996 passed in June of that year once again repeated the arguments it had previously set down in writing, and the law once again appeared before Parliament. Not even then did the government parties muster sufficient courage at last to face up to the terrible burden of responsibility incumbent on the Hungarian state for the horrors of the Holocaust, instead settling for an ambiguous solution whereby it ostensibly satisfied the principles advanced by the Constitutional Court whilst postponing the decision on the amounts involved, imposing a final deadline of 7 January 1998, which was subsequently extended to 7 October. Obviously, the thinking here was that 7 January was too close for comfort to the elections, and that the government parties' chances would be jeopardised if they were to take a decision on this matter.

Pricing a life

The decision was not taken, all the wavering had been in vain. The results of the election are well-known and therefore it is up to the new government to determine the amounts concerned.

The new government did not discuss the issue, preferring to tuck it neatly away amongst the thousands of provisions contained in the budget, writing that the amount to be paid by way of compensation for a deceased individual is set at 30,000 forints [USD 375]. If it deems the matter to have been closed by means of this stipulation, another round of deliberations at the Constitutional Court can be launched.

Many people allege that nothing unusual happened, it was only to be expected, given that since 1991, the same Ministry officials have been responsible for drafting the law and submitting it to the government, and that, as one of them allegedly put it during the debates that followed in the wake of the proceedings at the Constitutional Court, regardless of the decision taken in accordance with principles, the corps of officials would make sure that detailed rules and conditions would be drawn up to deprive both the deportees and the inmates of forced labour camps would never lay hands on a penny's worth of genuine compensation. The current legal-technical solution and the proposed amount would appear to bear out this prediction.

The law adopted in 1992 stipulated an amount of one million forints' worth of compensation for loss of life, whilst the figure called for in the 1996 bill comprised 300,000 forints [USD 375], which does not correspond even to 20 per cent of the real value of the previous amount, and the current bill allocates 30,000 forints [USD 375]. In real terms, this represents not much more than one per cent of the 1992 amount. The deportees were differentiated from their fellow citizens on the basis of race, were separated from them and then, on the pretext that they had no right to their own lives, were murdered. Even now, a distinction is being drawn between categories of the dead, on the pretext that the deaths of those who were murdered on the basis of their race are worth less than the deaths of those sentenced by courts.

The distinction is as clear as its underlying message. The message is that justice can exist in principles, but never in practice. Up to the present day, Hungary has not yet faced up in principle to the horrors of the Holocaust, nor has she either truly or deeply reflected on them. Drawing the practical conclusions of such thought has equally failed to happen. Perhaps the legislators do not understand - or indeed do not wish to understand - that the issue of compensation is not an economic or material issue as far as the Jewish community is concerned, but is a moral one. The real question here is whether the principle of equality actually exists, whether the hundreds of thousands of murdered victims who were cast out of the body of the nation will be allowed back into the fold and whether they will be regarded as equals by the rest of society.

On several occasions, the Constitutional Court has pointed out that the most important constitutional consideration to be taken into account when it comes to implementing rules on compensation is that of equal treatment, which is characteristic of distributive justice. The laws on compensation to be paid in respect of individuals that have been adopted hitherto and the current bill are not characteristic of distributive justice, but of distributive injustice.

Since 1992, much time has passed and, since those days, cases relating to compensation to be paid as a result of the Holocaust have come to the forefront of public attention, not just in countries which directly participated in the Holocaust, such as Germany and Hungary, but also in the receiver states which profited from the Holocaust. Even Swiss banking secrecy, previously believed to be unbreakable, did not prevent the Swiss banks and the Swiss people from taking a good look at themselves, acknowledging their responsibility and setting up humanitarian aid funds.

International insurance companies and global car manufacturers, who had believed themselves untouchable, were also forced to climb down and more and more people are probing into the means by which the Allied powers, on the side of right in the Second World War, subsequently profited from the deaths of the murdered millions, how they aided the murderers in escaping and how they secured their ill-gotten riches to say nothing of the role of the Vatican and of the Catholic church in general.

The reconstituted Hungarian Republic acquired a major moral advantage at the beginning of the 1990s when it initiated the compensation process. This has, however, paled into insignificance beside the failure to resolve the most important issue in a satisfying manner. For ideological reasons, the Antall government cherished a desire to exclude the relatives of the hundreds of thousands of victims of murder from receiving compensation, the Horn government followed suit due to cowardice and political strategy, whilst the Orbán government may perhaps be said to be guilty of doing the same out of negligence.

It is not yet possible to know whether the 30,000 forints [USD 375] represent a final amount, nor is it possible to know what the Constitutional Court's opinion on this matter will be, but one thing is certain, and that is that the Republic of Hungary finds itself in conflict with a general trend manifested throughout the world. Hungary is not facing up to her past, she is not contributing to settling its legacy, but is instead tearing open old wounds yet again and causing increasing bitterness amongst the relatives of the deceased by once again ostracising them from the body of the nation.

The Jewish community's response

In a letter addressed to János Áder, Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament, József Schweitzer, Chief Rabbi, set out his reasons for returning the 30,000 forints [USD 375] he had received by way of compensation for the death of his father in Auschwitz (see Új Élet, issue 9, 1999 ):

We are all aware that it is not possible to provide or receive material compensation or a sum of money for life, for the that taking of life by means of violence.

It is precisely for this reason that, in the following, I refrain from using the term "compensation". In these tragic cases, we can only be talking about a symbolic gesture, which, for want of anything better, is expressed in terms of a sum of money.

It is common knowledge that there were compatriots of ours who, although innocent of any crime, were condemned to death and executed with the active collaboration of the Hungarian authorities.

Their heirs and relatives receive a share in this compensatory gesture, as do the relatives and heirs of the victims of Auschwitz. This is right and proper, since it is the moral obligation of the Hungarian people to pay homage to the memory of its innocent boys and girls, who were murdered and to make a contribution towards improving the quality of life of their descendants. This procedure should, however, be identical for all. Unfortunately, the descendants and heirs of those who perished in Auschwitz and the heirs of those who suffered a cruel and painful death by other means have not had equal treatment meted out to them.

It is not possible to draw any kind of distinction between one Hungarian citizen murdered with the collusion of the Hungarian authorities and another.

I would like to emphasise that the amount is a symbolic one in every respect, but that it must bear some relationship to reality nevertheless. Unfortunately, neither 30,000 [USD 375] nor 15,000 forints [USD 188] correspond to an application of that principle.

I cannot accept the 30,000 forints [USD 375] transferred to my bank account as a result of the cruel death and murder of my dear father.

I consider it as an offensively discriminatory procedure. Of course, I put pen to paper on my own behalf, but I am aware that many of my fellow countrymen and brethren share the same thoughts and feelings.

Yesterday, I posted the 30,000 forints [USD 375] allocated to me to your address, esteemed Mr. Speaker. I cherish the fond hope that a sense of justice will manifest itself soon in relation to this painful issue and that other legal measures will follow.

Put in context, Mr Stumpf's speech takes on a radically different tone. A mask of liberalism is adopted in order to manipulate an audience of the great and the good, many of whom will be sitting in judgement over Hungary's membership of the EU. Once again, without wishing to be unduly cynical vis-a-vis my own country's elected representatives, I am left with the suspicion that official Hungary is seeking Brownie points, courting approval by espousing progressive values, disguising the real problem of coming to terms with the crimes of the past. To my mind, the pitiful price tag of 30,000 forints [USD 375] on a human life and the agony of bereavement, is highly revealing of the government's priorities...

The Hungarian Holocaust debate

In Hungary, the subject of the Holocaust as part of public debate is inextricably linked with a broad range of political concerns such as freedom of speech versus censorship. That it remains a highly sensitive topic can hardly come as any surprise in the light of the above. A clear illustration of the tenor, emotional sway and contents of exchanges in the press is provided by the discussion of a recent lecture held by Mária Schmidt at the Party of Independent Smallholder's Tibor Eckhardt Political Academy (on 11 November 1999). Schmidt, Director of the Twentieth Century Institute and chief advisor to the Hungarian Prime Minister, is closely linked to the intellectual mainstream of the political right.

Several passages of her speech were quoted in Magyar Hírlap, causing outrage amongst representatives of the Jewish community. The historian began by taking stock of the current state of play in Hungary: "by the end of the 1980s, the fact of the Holocaust, its uniqueness and the statistics pertaining to the number of victims, had become sacred and unassailable axioms. In many countries, "Holocaust-negators" can expect to be called to account under the provisions of the criminal statute and here too in Hungary, attempts have been and continue to be made in to ensure that it becomes possible for criminal law instruments to be used against those who belittle the persecution of the Jews."

Then followed the more controversial remarks: "If we examine the root causes of why these days virtually the only enduring memory of the earth-shattering events of the Second World War is the campaign aimed at the mass annihilation of the Jews in the course of that War, of why the younger generations associate a phenomenon which has nothing whatsoever to do with historical accuracy. The Second World War was not about the Jews or genocide. No matter how regrettable it may be to say so, the Holocaust and the extermination or rescuing of the Jews was a secondary issue, we may even call it a marginal aspect which did not feature amongst the war aims of one side in the conflict. The industrialised massacre of the Jews proceeded in such a way that it was common knowledge and that information about it was accessible to all".

She continued by analysing the response of the Allied forces: "under no circumstances did the Allies go to war against Nazi Germany in order to prevent it from pursuing its genocidal policy against the Jews," going on to point out that in many countries Communism claimed more victims than the Holocaust and to condemn the double standards leading to a situation in which the death toll ascribed to the Communists is played down, whilst anyone foolhardy enough to make light of the Holocaust is subject to "instant anathemisation".

The Confederation of the Jewish Communities in Hungary dubbed Schmidt as Le Pen's best pupil in Hungary. The French extremist's description of the gas chambers as a side issue in the Second World War bears a resemblance in the choice of terminology, and he had deservedly been forced to pay the price of exclusion from political culture. Similarly, Schmidt's misguided statements would be enough to make her former mentor, Professor György Ránki, to turn in his grave, and the Prime Minister's Office should therefore classify them as part of her oeuvre as a writer rather than as a professional historian.

Schmidt's reaction was to express her regret that Mazsihisz had adopted its stance purely on the basis of a brief account in the columns of the daily concerning her lecture, without having read through the text in its entirety. Had the Confederation taken the trouble to do so, it would not have deemed her claims unacceptable. "I feel it is particularly unfortunate that the representatives of a Hungarian religious denomination should immediately start kicking up a political storm in conjunction with a lecture given by a historian, demanding that the Prime Minister's Office respond by adopting a stance, that is to say, by calling for a political veto to be placed on a specialised branch of learning".

Criticism was also voiced by János Grosser and Béla Danielisz of the Budapest branch of the MSZP (Socialists). Branding Schmidt's statements as an act of falsifying history, they condemned her for insulting the six million victims of the Holocaust in general and its 400,000 Hungarian martyrs in particular. They were an affront to the dignity of the venue in which they were spoken, as the best members of the Party of Independent Smallholders, including the individual who gave his name to the Academy, Tibor Eckhardt, offered courageous resistance to the surging tide of Nazi madness. Indeed, the first amongst these, Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, had sacrificed his life in the fight against Fascism. Not only should the Party of Independent Smallholders distance itself from Schmidt's comments, but the Prime Minister should dismiss her as an adviser and ensure that a new director for the Twentieth Century Institute is found, one whose commitment to democracy and professional qualities are irreproachable.

Béla Túri-Kovács, deputy head of the Independent Smallholder's Parliamentary group, insisted that he had not arrived at the debate until well after Schmidt had finished her lecture and was already in the process of answering questions. Her conduct in replying to sharply-worded contributions had been impeccable. In his opinion, her decision to even mention the Holocaust had been a brave one, as it could no longer be regarded as pure history. The Independent Smallholders rejected extremism in any shape or form, regardless of where on the political spectrum it occurred. The most effective means of combating extremism, however, was not to draw a veil of silence over certain issues, but to put forward reasoned arguments of a kind that would enable individuals to recognise historical reality.

The MSZP did not shrink from expressing even stronger criticisms, placing Schmidt's lecture in the broader, more sinister, context of an extreme right-wing onslaught, characterised by an anti-Semitic political and cultural offensive, and organising a demonstration against these developments in front of Parliament on 25 November. Tacit support was being lent by responsible officials to the Hungarian Justice and Life Party's (MIÉP's) efforts to rehabilitate a motley crew of war criminals, including Lászlo Bárdossy.

In his capacity as 37th Prime Minister of Hungary, Bárdossy bore the lion's share of the blame for the disastrous advance into the Vojvodina as well as for the adoption of anti-Jewish legislation in Parliament, paving the way for the Holocaust in Hungary. He was a traitor of the first order, declaring war on Britain and the US, a course of action that led to slaughter on an unprecedented scale. The extreme right of today, by stirring up recollections of the "gentlemanly Fascism" of an age that has ignominiously disappeared, is aimed at discrediting democratic values and thereby stands in sharp contrast to the political culture and the anti-Fascist tradition of thought within the European Union.

Next week: Schmidt strikes back.

Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 30 January 2000.

The sources used in the preparation of this article were: Magyar Hírlap, 5 January and 13 November 1999, Népszabadság, 28 January 2000 and Új Élet, edition 9, 1999.

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