For the first time ever, Hungary held official ceremonies this week to commemorate the deportation of 600,000 Hungarian Jews to death camps during World War II.
The commemorative events, which were held on Sunday, began with a ceremony at the central Jewish Cemetery, where the 50th year anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust was remembered.
On Sunday evening, a ceremony sponsored by the World Jewish Congress was held at the Opera House here. Among those attending were Hungarian President Arpad Goncz.
Goncz told the audience to remember the “passivity of hundreds of thousand of people, watching hundreds of thousands of their fellow countrymen marched away to death.”
He also spoke of the heroism of the “dauntless few who did everything in their power to slow down the smooth operating of the death machine.”
The commemorative events were at least partially organized in an effort to bring Hungarian anti-Semitism – both during the war and in current times – to the attention of the Hungarian populace, which heard little about the subject during the years when the country was under Communist rule.
The Communist had discouraged all discussion of the treatment of Hungarian Jews at the hands of the both the Nazis and the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian fascist party that allied itself with the Germans.
But plans to organize the commemorations were not without their share of controversy.
Earlier this year, the Hungarian Jewish community was seriously at odds with the government over when to hold a day of mourning to mark the Holocaust here.
The government had originally wanted to commemorate the occupation of Hungary by the Germans on March 19, 1944, not the Jewish deportation, which began on May 15 of that year.
A separate controversy erupted when the government allowed extreme rightist, who were members of a new political party established by ultranationalist Istvan Csurka, to serve on the commemorative committee.
Csurka has in the past made a series of public-Semitic statements.
Among those invited to attend the weekend commemoration was Shevach Weiss, the speaker of Israel’s Knesset.
Weiss, a Holocaust survivor, made an official visit to Hungary over the weekend at the invitation of his counterpart, the speaker of Hungary’s Parliament, George Szabad, who is Jewish. The Jewish committee that had helped organize the weekend events had also urged Weiss to visit.
“Modern anti-Semitism is very dangerous in Europe. Neo-fascism is having a revival, and the activists are not stupid, primitive persons, but intellectuals and leading personalities,” Weiss said during his speech at the Jewish Cemetery.
Thousands of people were at the cemetery, despite heavy rains.
While in Budapest, Weiss met Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Boross and Foreign Minister Geza Jeszensky. Boross laid a wreath at the Jewish cemetery, but both he and Jeszensky declined invitations to speak at the Opera House on Sunday night.
After meeting in two leaders, Weiss told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that it was very important that Israel was represented at a high level at Hungary’s Holocaust commemorations.
The Hungarian political elite have a “deep interest in emphasizing their unique relations with the Jewish Community and with Israel,” Weiss said.
Noting that representatives of the Hungarian Jewish community have been complaining that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Hungary, Weiss said that such concerns made it all the more important that he Holocaust ceremonies.
As the part of the weekend’s commemorative events, the Budapest Jewish Museum reopened over the weekend.
The museum had been robbed of priceless Jewish historical artifacts in December by burglars who still remain at large. Police have made no progress in finding the artifacts, which are valued at $60 to $80 million.
It has been rumored here that Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, also took part in the investigation.
For the reopening, new pieces that had not been on display before were on view at the museum.
Most of the newly exhibited pieces were donated by private individuals and other museums.
“The fact that we have been able to gather a new collection so fast shows that Jews want to go on living here,” said Rabbi Tamas Raj, who spoke at the museums’ reopening ceremony of Friday.
An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Jews live in Hungary today, making it by far the largest Jewish community in Eastern Europe.
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.