BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungarian Jewish leaders said on Tuesday they may stay away from commemorations of the Holocaust in 2014 because of resurgent anti-Semitism in a nation that has struggled to come to terms with a wartime role in deporting Jews.
The Hungarian government is planning to mark the 70th anniversary of June 1944, when 437,000 Jews were sent to Nazi death camps within weeks. In total, about half a million Jews perished before the Budapest ghetto was liberated in 1945.
Since the war, anti-Semitism has remained a big problem in the central European nation, which is home to the largest indigenous Jewish community in Europe. And Jewish leaders feel the country has not fully faced up to its wartime past.
In November, for instance, Hungary earned international scorn after the far-right Jobbik party unveiled a statue of wartime leader Miklos Horthy, whose regime was allied with Nazi Germany, vilified Jews and helped deportations.
“We sought out the Prime Minister with our concerns because if this year of Holocaust remembrance is not a success then that will be the failure of all of Hungary,” Andras Heiszler, chairman of the Hungarian Jewish Congregations’ Association (Mazsihisz), told a news conference.
“There is a limit. If things don’t get back to normal we will consider withdrawing from the commemorations,” he said.
Among other examples, Hungarian Jews were enraged when Sandor Szakaly, the director of a new government-sponsored history institute, called a 1941 round of deportation of tens of thousands of Jews “a policy procedure for foreign nationals.”
The Jews were deported from Hungary to German-occupied Ukraine, where they were eventually killed. Szakaly later apologized but has not resigned.
The centre-right government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party, which faces elections in April, has said it will spearhead reconciliation and pursue a policy of zero tolerance against anti-Semitism.
The plans for 2014 include a new Holocaust memorial centre, which is under construction at a Budapest train station that was once a hub of the deportations. Another monument will depict Hungary as a victim of German aggression.
Mazsihisz said it had seen no guarantees the memorial centre would reflect the role Hungarians played in the Holocaust, and added that the monument suggested the narrative would be to blame the occupying German forces.
In a statement, the government spokesman’s office said the goal was to commemorate all victims of events after the Nazi occupation on March 19, 1944. Hitler’s forces occupied Hungary after finding that the Nazi ally was in secret peace talks with Washington and London.
“The victims of events after March 19, 1944 deserve the empathy and the honorable commemoration,” government spokesman Andras Giro-Szasz said in the emailed statement.
But historian Krisztian Ungvary wrote on the news web site hvg.hu that Hungary stripped Jews of nearly all of their rights and killed tens of thousands, before the German occupation.
Hungarian authorities had passed more than a hundred laws discriminating Jews and there had been pogroms, mass murders and deportations, as well as government-sanctioned forced labor camps, all before 1944.
Gusztav Zoltai, a Mazsihisz leader and a Holocaust survivor, said: “It wasn’t the Germans that locked me up in the ghetto but Hungarian soldiers and fascists.” He said the last living witnesses had a duty to tell their story.
Reporting by Marton Dunai