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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Hungary

April 15, 1981
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

— “Hungarian Jewry in previous ages never enjoyed such equality before the law, and never had the freedom of religion and conscience that is the case today.” Ilona Seifert, Secretary-General of the Central Board for Hungarian Jewry (MIOK), told journalists on a recent United Jewish Appeal-American Jewish Press Association mission. MIOK coordinates most of the Jewish activities and institutions in Hungary.

While Hungarian Jews have the opportunity to live a freer and fuller religious life than any other Jewish community in the Soviet Bloc, this “freedom” is subtly controlled by the government-Seifert is paid by the state for her work in the Jewish community. Her late husband, Dr. Geza Seifert, was both president of MIOK and was highly decorated by the Communist Party.

The president of MIOK is also paid by the state, and his nomination must be approved by the State Office for Church Affairs. The current president, Imre Heber, acknowledged that the community receives partial funding from the state, and “couldn’t exist without it.” Dr. Mihaly Borsa head of the Central Committee for Social Assistance (KSB) that administers social welfare programs to the Jewish community, is also paid by the government.

The Chief Rabbi of Hungary, Laszalo Salgo, was elected to Parliament in 1980. He is a government emissary to the community and a community emissary to the government. “The Minister of Religion has a permanent connection with our leaders and knows about our problems,” he said.

According to the Deputy Minister of the State Office of Church Affairs, there is a “good understanding between the churches and the socialists…. The relationship between church and state is satisfactory here. Religious people are not persecuted under socialism.” This echoed Seifert’s statement that “the relationship between our state and our religion is a very good one, and both our state and our religion strive to cultivate the same.”


The Deputy Minister also discussed anti-Semitism in Hungary, stating: “Organized anti-Semitism is not here; the government would not allow it.” He acknowledged, however, that “it is possible that there are in our country persons who are anti-Semitic. We have education on fascist rule, but some traces of anti-Semitism remain.”

One example of the government’s “education on fascist rule” is a traveling exhibit entitled “Remember.” The exhibit features large blowups of photographs: Nazi roundups of Hungarian Jews, 1940’s newspaper headlines, and infamous Nazi leaders. At the entrance, a government explanation states that the Jewish population of Hungary numbered 825,000 in 1941, 570,000 Jews were deported to ghettos and camps, and 25,000 Gypsies were also deported.

With the exception of this introductory panel, the word “Jew” (Zsidonak in Hungarian) never again appears in the government explanations accompanying the photographs. MIOK officials insisted the exhibit was created by the government as a gesture of good will toward the Jewish community. A more likely explanation is that anti-Semitsm is an excellent example of fascism, and thus effective pro-Communist propaganda.

Seifert said of anti-Semitism in Hungary today, that there is none, “thanks to the Hungarian government that fights all symptoms of anti-Semitism, both preventively and repressively. In brief, our Criminal Law regards anti-Semitism as an offense and imposes heavy sanctions of prison. This is not a paper law, but practiced in reality. ” She added, however, that “people with anti-Semitic feelings live everywhere, surely with us, too. However, they cannot publicly express their feelings.”


The government’s subtle control seemed apparent not only in the quasi-official status of the MIOK leaders, but also in the content of the semi-monthly MIOK newspaper, Uj Elet (New Life). At a meeting with members of the editorial board of the newspaper, which was supposed to be a journalist-to-journalist exchange of ideas, the following information was forthcoming:

The paper has existed for 35 years, publishes 7,000 copies, uses news sources from throughout the world, and has a full-time staff of five. Specific political questions were answered: “It is not surprising that on our editorial staff sit people who consider the policy of the state and (Communist) party good and adequate.”

After the meeting, a journalist who writes for Uj Elet privately answered a question about government censorship. “There is no censorship, perse, ” he said. “Censorship is in the heads of the editorial board. They know what can be printed and what cannot.”

News of Israel is not printed if it is in any way “political” or pro-Zionist. In the issue given to mission participants, the only news from Israel concerned the transfer of library materials there from Europe. (In contrast, the daily newspapers follow the Soviet anti-Israel and pro-PLO line.) Several members of the editorial board emphasized that Hungarian citizens can receive all printed matter from the West, and they urged exchanges of newspapers with editors on the mission.

The Jewish religion, as all religions in Hungary, is tolerated by the Communist government. The Jews of Hungary seem to know instinctively that this tolerance will cease it Judaism crosses the thin, almost invisible, line between religion and Zionism. Any suggested or overt affinity with Zionism, other than visits to relatives in Israel, is therefore not expressed.

Tomorrow: Part Four

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