Hungarian Jewry a Reporter’s Notebook
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Hungarian Jewry a Reporter’s Notebook

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The ground-breaking ceremony for the memorial to the 600,000 Hungarian Jews who died in the Holocaust was itself an extraordinary event that was covered by Hungary’s 10 daily newspapers.

Some papers omitted converge, others provided concise stories, including mention of the Hungarian government officials who were present — including some wearing yarmulkes.

At least one paper referred to the unprecedented presence of World Zionist Congress-Jewish Agency Executive Director Simcha Dinitz, but it wrote about the Israeli official’s appearance as though it were a commonplace event.

A signing ceremony took place prior to the ground-breaking ceremony, followed by a buffet lunch. The festivities took place in a seemingly simple auditorium at MIOK, the National Association of Hungarian Jews, but the room in fact had historical significance.

In 1938, following the Anschluss in Austria, Hungary passed the first of its anti-Jewish laws, among which was one forbidding 80 percent of Jewish actors to work.

So Jewish actors found employment in that very room, and the Jewish man who employed them and fed them then was there to tell the story.

Robert Fuzeni was an actor born in Budapest. In 1938, he said, he was acting on the Jewish stage of OMIKE, predecessor of MIOK. Fuzeni renounced the stage after the war and became a policeman, charged with looking for those responsible for persecuting Jewish actors.

The story of those days is being retold on a film by a crew of Hungarian Jews who do not want the story to be forgotten.

Andor Weiss, executive director of the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture, sees a lesson in the Holocaust memorial itself.

For the first time, government officials of an Eastern bloc country have acknowledged, publicly and in writing, that the Nazis destroyed Jews "because they belonged to the Jewish faith."

"The world will always say, ‘It’s not true.’ But if the Hungarian government signed a document… that means the government has acknowledged that these people were killed only because they were Jews, and the people couldn’t say it was not true."

Weiss urged that "people give more and more names" of those who perished "and then the Hungarians cannot deny it… This generation has to make sure that it will teach the second generation that it was true, that there was a Holocaust. The second generation should go there and pray, symbolically, for those who have no grave."

Dr. Geza Komoroczy, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Budapest, says the number of Jews estimated to live in Hungary today can be broken down into about three groups: about 100,000 who "keep something"; perhaps 300,000 who know somehow they are Jews but do nothing about it; and perhaps 100,000 more who are completely unaware of their Jewish roots. Komoroczy is not Jewish.

The 130-year-old Dohany Street Synagogue, said by many to be Europe’s largest, stands in need of major restoration. The Emanuel Foundation has made a commitment to this project, as well as the renovation of other Hungarian Jewish synagogues.

Hungarians, both Jews and non-Jews, who were present during the ground-breaking ceremonies, seemed genuinely taken by efforts to restore the synagogue.

Peter Biro, international relations director of the Publishing and Promotion Company for Tourism, said, "You know, we have lost 600,000. . . For someone who is a Jew, it (the synagogue) is very important. But for a Hungarian who is not Jewish, it is also important. This synagogue is the biggest in Europe. It has to be important for everybody to renew it. For me, it is one of the most important Hungarian monuments. It is important not only for Hungarians but for everyone in Europe."

Former U.S. Ambassador to Austria Ronald Lauder has contributed to the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture in order to help restore the Dohany Synagogue, enlarge the capacity of the Jewish children’s camp on Lake Balaton and realize the Holocaust memorial in Budapest. Lauder’s mother, cosmetics tycoon Estee Lauder, was born in Satoraljaujhely, Hungary, which is also the burial place of Rabbi Moses Teitlebaum, the Yismach Moshe, the first of the line of Satmar Rebbes.

At the Dohany Street Synagogue, women, wearing slacks and carrying bags are directed to file down two outside aisles reserved just for them. There they sit separately from the men while a Conservative-style service proceeds from the bimah at the front of the synagogue, accompanied by an organ.

About three blocks away, the Kazinzcy Street Synagogue continues the traditional Orthodox service from the central bimah, with women looking out over the men while sitting in an airless balcony.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — known fondly as "the Joint" in Hungary and the rest of Europe — provides about 1,000 meals daily to elderly, needy Jews in Hungary who are Holocaust survivors not eligible for German reparations because they live in Eastern Europe, according to Ralph Goldman, JDC honorary executive vice president.

The meals are prepared in the kitchen at MIOK, and old Jews can be seen daily coming from the kitchen carrying sandwiches. About 200 Jewish senior citizens who are unable to leave their homes are fed by a "meals on wheels" program sponsored by the Joint.

Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel had agreed to be honorary president of the Emanuel Foundation’s International Tribute Committee for Hungarian Jewish Holocaust victims. He expressed his sadness at not being able to attend the ceremony itself, due to an appointment in the United States that had been arranged six months earlier.

No persons interviewed by the JTA were chosen or suggested for interviews by government or other officials, and not one word transmitted from Hungary was censored.

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