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Swiss Visit to Hungary Goes Sour As President Clashes with Local Jews

January 9, 2002
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Disputes over a yarmulke and a Righteous Gentile have soured relations between the outgoing president of Switzerland and Hungary’s Jewish community.

On a state visit to Hungary in December, problems began for then-President Moritz Leuenberger — who became transport minister on Jan. 1 under Switzerland’s system of rotating the presidency among its Cabinet members — when his delegation visited the Budapest Jewish Museum.

The museum honors Carl Lutz, Switzerland’s World War II consul in Hungary, who helped save more than 62,000 Jews from the Holocaust by giving them Swiss travel documents against orders from Bern.

Leuenberger was annoyed that his guide, the museum director, mentioned three times how Lutz was “condemned” by Swiss officials for years after the war.

According to the Swiss Embassy in Budapest, Lutz obtained permission from the Nazis and the Hungarian government in the last months of the war to issue protective letters to 8,000 Hungarian Jews, which allowed them to emigrate to Palestine.

Using a ruse and interpreting the 8,000 not as persons but as families, Lutz and his staff issued tens of thousands of additional protective letters. He established 76 Swiss safe houses throughout Budapest and, with the help of his wife, Gertrud, liberated Jews from deportation centers and death marches.

The issue of protective letters later was adopted by representatives of other neutral governments in Budapest, such as Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden, broadening the impact.

After the war, the Swiss government punished Lutz by consigning him to a low post as a consul in Bregenz in Austria, just seven miles from the Swiss border.

Only in 1963, when a street in Haifa was named after Lutz did his native village of Walzenhausen recognize him as well, making him an honorary citizen.

By the time he died in 1975, Lutz had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He has been recognized as a Righteous Gentile by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel.

In 1991 a memorial to Lutz was built at the entrance to the old Budapest Ghetto.

Bern, however, waited until the late 1990s — when Switzerland came under international scrutiny for its role during and after World War II — to recognize Lutz as a hero. Together with the Jewish community, the government financed a book in Lutz’s honor.

Leuenberger’s visit became even more uncomfortable when he refused to put on a yarmulke before entering Budapest’s main synagogue. Because of that, organizers canceled the synagogue visit.

A spokeswoman for Leuenberger confirmed the incident.

“The president felt manipulated, and he is not available for further comments,” she told JTA.

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