NEW YORK (Oct. 5)
The Hungarian government, through its foreign minister, has apologized to the Jewish people for its role in the Holocaust.
During World War II, Hungarian pro-Nazi fascists — both in league with the Nazis and independently — rounded up Jews and deported them to their deaths.
In meetings here this week with the World Jewish Congress and the Jewish Agency for Israel, Hungarian Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs also took steps toward a formal memorandum of understanding on restitution of Jewish property seized by the Nazis and the Communists.
Speaking on behalf of Hungarian Prime Minister Gyula Horn, Kovacs told the WJC on Tuesday: “It is self-deception if anyone shifts responsibility for the genocide in Hungary solely and exclusively to Nazi Germany.”
The Jewish group described Kovacs’ statement as “one of the most far-reaching by any of the former East European Nazi collaborationist governments.”
Kovacs, who was in the United States for a scheduled address to the United Nations on Monday, also stressed Hungarian responsibility for anti-Jewish acts years before the Holocaust.
“The shutting out of society and even persecution of Jews of Hungarian citizenship did not begin on May 19, 1944, when the Germans occupied the country,” said Kovacs.
“We should not forget about the murders committed by the White Terror Squads in 1919, (the quotas) in the 1920s and the shameful anti-Jewish laws, which meant a trumping of the law.
“Consequently it has to be stated unambiguously that history obliges us to apologize,” he said.
A BOLD BREAK WITH THE PAST
Kovacs is a member of the Socialist Party, which was created by the reform wing of the former Communist Party and took control of Hungary in elections held last May. The Socialists ousted the previous center-right government, with which the Jewish community had many strong disagreements.
The new regime appears to be making a bold break with the past.
In an earlier meeting with the American Jewish Committee, Kovacs said that it is “of the utmost importance how Hungarian Jewry feels in Hungary, because it shows how democracy has developed in the country.”
Last Friday, after meeting with the AJCommittee, Kovacs told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “It is crucial for the Hungarian government to stop and protest against any appearance of anti-Semitism.”
Leslie Keller, chairman of the WJC East European Commission and a leader of the Hungarian Jewish community, described Kovacs’ statements as “extraordinary and marking a new, positive chapter in Hungarian-Jewish relations.”
In a private meeting with WJC President Edgar Bronfman and afterward with the heads of the WJC and the Jewish Agency, the Hungarian foreign minister also discussed the restoration of confiscated Jewish property. “We talked about substance, and a great deal of progress was made,” said Elan Steinberg, WJC executive director.
This was in accordance with the accord the World Jewish Restitution Organization signed in April with Hungary for the return of confiscated property.
Hungary and Slovakia are the only former Communist countries in Eastern Europe to have entered such agreements with the Jewish community.
(JTA correspondent Agnes Bohm in Washington contributed to this report.)