Hungarians Welcome ‘the Joint’ Back to Budapest After 36 Years

An international Jewish philanthropic agency has returned to Hungary for the first time in 36 years to resume officially the many relief, educational and cultural programs for Hungarian Jews it was forced to drop during the Stalinist era.

There was a festive air, an ebullient welcome from local Jewish, Israeli and U.S. representatives, as well as warm expressions of good will from ranking Hungarian government officials present as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee formally opened its new office at the Jewish community center here Friday.

Loud applause and a chorus of “Mazel Tovs” sounded as community leaders affixed a large mezuzah to the doorpost.

In the gaily decorated function room of the community center, JDC President Sylvia Hassenfeld observed that the new Budapest office is JDC’s first in Eastern Europe in more than three decades.

“This is a community which has enjoyed a rich past,” Hassenfeld said, gesturing toward the elaborately painted ceiling and the portraits of former community leaders lining the walls.

“I hope from this day forth, their lives will be rich again,” she said.

The United States was represented on the occasion by U.S. Ambassador Mark Palmer. Israel sent its diplomatic representative in Hungary, Shlomo Merom.

Merom heads the Israeli consular delegation that established itself in Budapest more than a year ago. Hungary and Israel have no other diplomatic ties.

FORCED TO SHUT DOWN IN 1953

Also present at the inauguration of the JDC office were 50 members of the United Jewish Appeal’s Chai Mission, most of them from the Baltimore area, who have been visiting Eastern Europe en route to Israel.

JDC is a major beneficiary of the UJA. The agency, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, was active in Hungary before World War II.

Some 600,000 Hungarian Jews perished in the Holocaust. JDC was back on the scene right after the war to administer to the needs of the survivors. But in 1953, it had to shut down its office.

It became active in Hungary again in the early 1980s, but without official recognition or a permanent representative.

“I was asked what our aim was in Hungary,” Hassenfeld said. “It is the inscription on the parchment inside the mezuzah. It is written, ‘Teach our children the precepts of our faith.’

“That was a communal responsibility accepted by the Joint at its inception 75 years ago. We hope to continue with the community that precept here in Hungary,” she said.

Several others who spoke at the ceremonies recalled their personal experiences with the JDC.

“Forty-four years ago I went for food from the Joint,” Merom said. “I still remember the flavor of the Hershey’s chocolate and pineapple that we got.

“I want to express the hope that the Joint can now give more and more to improved education here and less to people who need other types of aid,” he said.

Conveying greetings from Israel, he also expressed hope that the recently improved links between Hungary and Israel will soon lead to full diplomatic relations.

ONE ‘SHEHECHEYANU’ MISSING

“Again and again we can say the Shehecheyanu, but that is one Shehecheyanu that is still not here,” the Israeli diplomat said.

Two senior Hungarian officials attended the ceremony and spoke warmly and frankly.

They included Deputy Prime Minister Sarkadi Nagy Barna, director of the religious affairs department, and Istvan Banfalvi, secretary of state at the Ministry of Social Welfare and Health.

After paying tribute to “the people from overseas and to the Hungarians who have made this day come about,” Banfalvi warned that Hungary was undergoing difficult political and social changes and hardships that generate xenophobia with the potential for anti-Semitism.

“We all know what tragedy this brings to communities exposed to prejudice,” the minister said, adding that the fate of Hungarian Jewry under the Nazis “will linger in our minds forever.”

Hassenfeld said JDC this year will allocate $1.5 million in financial aid for the 80,000-strong Jewish community in Hungary.

The official Hungarian news agency MTI reported that Deputy Prime Minister Peter Med-gyessy told Hassenfeld and Ralph Goldman, JDC’s honorary executive vice president, at a meeting Thursday that the government would contribute 10 percent of that amount.

GOVERNMENT PLEDGES MONEY

JDC currently runs aid programs that include a kosher kitchen in Budapest for elderly and ill Jews, many of them Holocaust survivors.

It funds the Anna Frank High School, which has 138 pupils, a third more than anticipated. And it runs a summer camp for children on Lake Balaton, southwest of Budapest.

The Hungarian government has contributed one-third of the sum, about $600,000 that has been earmarked to rebuild and expand the Budapest Jewish Hospital.

JDC funds also will be used to expand the Budapest rabbinical seminary, which trains rabbis for communities all over Eastern Europe.

“One of our most important tasks is to pass on Jewish history and religion to young people,” said Asher Ostrin, director of JDC’s European Section.

“We are the standard-bearers for Jews here. And more than that, we are their witness,” Hassenfeld told the gathering.

The opening of the JDC office was preceded Thursday night by a special concert by the world-renowned cantor, Joseph Malovany.

It was given before a packed audience in the Dohany Street Synagogue, the largest Jewish house of worship in Europe, but in serious disrepair.

More than 1,000 attended, giving Malovany a prolonged standing ovation.

The cantor also appeared Sunday at the dedication of the newly restored synagogue in Szeged, in southern Hungary.

The restoration work was accomplished with JDC help through funds contributed by a former Jewish resident of Szeged, who wishes to remain anonymous.

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