BUDAPEST (Aug. 6)
In his 93 years, Marton Hellmann has had plenty of opportunities to hone the art of survival.
The misery of Austria’s Mauthausen concentration camp; the loss of his parents and four of five siblings to the gas chambers; the oppression of four decades of communism.
And today, the indignity of a meager $115-a-month pension that barely covers his electricity, heating and phone bills.
So not much fazes the artist, even the news that his pension will soon more than double under a Hungarian government plan to provide compensation to its approximately 20,000 Holocaust survivors.
Instead, Hellmann, sitting in a brightly lit cafeteria after he and other elderly Jews had taken their daily free lunch, would rather talk about other things.
Like the watercolor portraits he painted two years ago and now adorn the cafeteria walls. He hopes to exhibit his work at some point.
“I’ve been through so many negative things in my life,” says Hellmann, his yarmulke tilted to the right atop his thin, white hair. “I don’t want to trust or distrust what the government says it will do.
“We’ll see what happens, but it’s better late than never.”
Hellmann and others here cannot help but be skeptical.
It took half a century for the Hungarian government to formally apologize for the tidal wave of evil — perpetrated by the Nazis and home-grown fascists – - that wiped out roughly three-quarters of the country’s 800,000 Jews during World War II. And now, pressed forward by American Jewish groups and the Clinton administration, Hungary’s primary motivation to provide restitution seems to be the removal of one more obstacle from the road to full Western integration.
Hungary, along with Poland and the Czech Republic, was recently allowed to begin the process of joining NATO. The European Union last month said it would recommend that Hungary and five other nations begin E.U. membership talks next year.
Western countries are closely watching Hungary’s commitment to human rights, and its treatment of Holocaust survivors will prove an important component of that commitment.
Today, the Hungarian Jewish community, the largest in Central Europe, numbers between 80,000 and 130,000.
To its credit, Hungary is the first formerly Communist country to compensate its Jews for the communal property — such as synagogues, schools and hospitals — that was either confiscated by Nazis or nationalized by Communists after the war.
The government’s restitution law, enacted in June, established a Jewish Heritage Foundation with an endowment fund of about $21 million — a little more than $1,000 per survivor.
Compensation eligibility begins at age 60 for everyone born before 1945. Payments may begin as early as the end of this month, with men to receive $15 monthly and women $12.
The pension for women will be smaller because they generally live longer.
Eighty year olds will be given about $49 and $43, for men and women respectively; Hellmann, 93, can expect $159 per month.
With time winding down for elderly Jews in desperate straits, Jewish community leaders hammered out the deal with the government earlier this year with a certain sense of urgency.
At the same time, they could not ignore the country’s overall economic and political climate. Throughout the region, Jews are torn between asking for what they deserve and appearing to ask for too much.
“We cannot demand more at this moment because there are also many poor Christians,” says Imre Hutas, co-chairman of the new foundation and also president of the Hungarian Jewish Social Support Foundation.
“For the right-wing extremists, perhaps they can tolerate giving” a modest amount, he adds. “But if it were any more, they could use it as a political weapon.”
Hutas and others did, however, emphasize that this is only the first of several steps.
Another likely source of support for Hungarian Holocaust victims is the $116 million Holocaust Memorial Fund that was created by Switzerland earlier this year, which is expected to begin making payments next month to Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe.
Yet there are many in the Hungarian community who believe this first step taken by the government should have been bigger.
While the restitution law also provided for the return of seven buildings and 10 paintings, observers say it is a tiny fraction of all the property lost.
One estimate making the rounds is that the restituted property represents just one-thousandth of what was taken.
Some speculate that local leaders settled now for the endowment of $21 million from the government primarily because next year’s elections may bring to power a right-wing government less sympathetic toward Hungary’s Jews.
Paradoxically, the opposite may occur, says Gabor Szanto, editor of the Jewish magazine Saturday.
The current Socialist-liberal coalition, sprinkled with Jews, was unafraid to be a tough negotiator, Szanto says.
But whatever government comes next, he adds, it will be obligated to stick to the course of westernization and the concomitant commitment to human rights – - and it will therefore seek to appease the Jewish community.
“They will be afraid of the charge of anti-Semitism,” Szanto says. “So Jews must be harder and louder, shouting in The New York Times and International Herald Tribune. They have been polite, silent, thinking the Hungarian government would feel obliged to compensate.”
Some Hungarian Jews are even more quiet.
Community leaders, who say it is impossible to gauge exactly how many survivors are still alive, estimate that only a couple of thousand have applied for compensation.
They point to several reasons why some survivors are not applying: A few simply do not need the money; some find the notion of cash as “compensation” for the murder of a relative morally distasteful; others continue to harbor resentment toward a Hungarian state that did little to prevent genocide.
But the most troubling reason also indicates the depth of trauma inflicted by the Holocaust: They fear being identified as Jewish.
Shortly after the Nazis invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944, they and the local fascists of the Arrow Cross Party dutifully collected the birth records of every Jewish community in the country. When the roundups began, they knew exactly where to go and who to arrest.
Today, some Hungarians vow never again to identify themselves in an official document — or even publicly, for that matter — as a Jew.
Survivors who have not applied for compensation have the option of coming forward later. There is no deadline.
The foundation’s officials are encouraging survivors to take the pension.
Even if they do not want it for personal use, the officials say, it could benefit the country’s various Jewish schools and organizations.
“The money is ours, for the Jews. Don’t leave it for the government,” says Gyorgyi Bollmann, a foundation volunteer and herself a survivor.
“The money is symbolic, it cannot wash away history. But please take it and donate it back to the Jewish community.”