The streets of central Budapest were filled Sunday with more than 10,000 people who gathered to witness the unveiling of the first government-sponsored memorial in Eastern Europe dedicated exclusively to Jewish martyrs of the Holocaust.
A procession of people, including the president and prime minister of Hungary, as well as the mayor of Budapest, filed into the courtyard of a plaza a few steps from the famous Dohany Synagogue.
There, where the entrance to the Budapest Ghetto once stood, some 6,000 Jews were buried during the war in a mass grave. Now, a granite-and-steel monument by Hungarian sculptor Imre Varga marks the site and commemorates the 600,000 Hungarian Jews who died in the Shoah.
On Sunday, throngs of people, many wearing kipot, stood before the memorial and lit candles in remembrance of the dead. They said Kaddish, recited the El Moleh Rachamim, and sang the Hungarian and Israeli national anthems.
The ceremony “was powerful, moving, emotional and, while tragic, in some way uplifting,” Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said in a telephone interview from Budapest, where he attended the ceremony.
So many thousands of people turned out for the event, said Steinberg, that the crowd spilled into adjoining streets and loud-speaker systems had to be installed.
Hungarian President Arpad Goncz and Prime Minister Jozsef Antall addressed the crowd, along with Zevulun Hammer, Israel’s minister of education and culture, and WJC President Edgar Bronfman also made speeches.
PLEDGE TO PROTECT JEWISH CULTURE
The participation of the Hungarian government in the ceremony represented a significant departure from the policies of the former Communist governments in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, which played down the uniqueness of Jewish martyrdom during World War II.
In private meetings with WJC leaders, Goncz and Antall asserted that the legacy of Hungarian Jewry is an integral part of Hungarian culture and will be protected. They also expressed their firm opposition to any expression of anti-Semitism in their country.
The Hungarian leaders specifically condemned the surge of anti-Semitic epithets that colored Hungary’s recent divisive elections for its first democratic government.
They also pledged their opposition to the 1975 U.N. General Assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism, supported by the former Communist government in Hungary, and they affirmed Hungary’s continued willingness to serve as a way station for Soviet Jews en route to Israel.
The Hungarian Holocaust Victims and Heroes Memorial consists of a powerful tree trunk, shaped like an overturned menorah with scar marks at the ends of each of its fire-singed branches. Each branch of the weeping willow contains thousands of leaves inscribed with names of Hungarian victims of the Holocaust.
“I made up my mind that I would not die without placing (the monument) in the center of Budapest,” Leslie Keller, a Hungarian Jew who lost his entire family in the Holocaust, said in a telephone interview from Budapest.
Keller is the president of the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture, which organized the memorial construction and ceremony.
“I’m very. satisfied now. This is my way of memorializing my parents. And the people of Hungary are happy,” he said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.