Hungary Sets Up a State Authority to Rewrite History

by Thomas Ország-Land (January 2014)


The physical destruction of European Jewry during the Nazi era has been probably the most thoroughly documented disaster in all human history. A huge proportion of the eyewitness accounts, expert analyses and artistic depiction of that catastrophe pertains to the organized murder of close to 600,000 Hungarian citizens of Jewish birth perpetrated by the Hungarian state in collaboration with Nazi Germany. This happened at the close of the Second World War when an Allied victory was already obvious.

Randolph L. Braham, the doyen of Holocaust studies and once a youth survivor of a Hungarian slave-labour camp, has assembled and classified the thousands of books and articles generated by the Hungarian Holocaust and made them accessible through an invaluable bibliography. It is accompanied by a magisterial encyclopaedia, edited by Braham and introduced by the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor, chronicling the wartime fate of thousands of ravaged Jewish communities. Both authors are enormously influential American historians of Hungarian origin well disposed towards post-Communist Hungary.

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THE GEOGRAPHICAL ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF THE HOLOCAUST IN HUNGARY

Edited by Randolph L. Braham
Foreword by Elie Wiesel
Northwestern University Press, in association with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Rosenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies at the Graduate Centre, City University of New York, 2013
Cloth, 1,696 pp., three volumes in slipcase with maps and black-and-white photographs throughout
ISBN: 978-0-8101-2916-0, $295.00 (introductory price)

BIBLIOGRAPHY OF THE HOLOCAUST IN HUNGARY

Compiled & Edited by Randolph L. Braham
Columbia University Press, in association with the Rosenthal Institute, 2012
Cloth, 925 pp., ISBN: 978-0-88033-687-1, $95.00 / £65.50

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These books are likely to prove useful for university courses in Holocaust studies and European history as well as political science, literature and sociology. They are being published at a critical moment.

Fearing a significant setback in national elections widely expected in April, Hungary‘s ultra-Conservative, populist government has set about courting the resurgent far-Right by denying in its new constitution the country’s enduring responsibility for the Holocaust. The government has also included several anti-Semitic authors in the national school curriculum, tacitly encouraged demands by anti-Semitic nationalists for the official rehabilitation of the WW2 leader Miklós Horthy and, in the worst tradition of East European authoritarianism, it has just announced plans for the establishment of a state historical research foundation clearly intended to rewrite official history.

This has contributed to mounting safety concerns by the surviving Jewish community. Authoritative research results just published by the Vienna-based Fundamental Rights Agency suggest that nearly half of Hungary’s Jews are actively considering emigration because of the unmitigated rise anti-Semitism. Theirs is the highest proportion of Jews to entertain such plans in the eight countries surveyed where Europe’s largest Jewish populations live. Braham’s books comprise a treasure house of meticulously assembled research findings exploring the background to the unfolding social crisis.

The three-volume geographical encyclopaedia is an exhaustive research and teaching aid chronicling the tragedy of hundreds of well established East European Jewish communities deeply loyal to the indigenous society that enthusiastically participated in their destruction. Illustrated by many historic photographs, the work is organized alphabetically by county, each section prefaced with a map and a contextual history describing its Jewish population up to and into the fateful year of 1944.


Hungarian group portrait 1944 Auschwitz

Entries track the demographic, cultural, and religious changes in even the smallest communities where Jews lived before their marginalization, dispossession, ghettoization and eventual deportation to slave-labour and death camps. It provides both panoramic and microscopic views of the destruction of most of the Jews of Hungary, until then the last significant surviving Jewish community within Nazi-occupied Europe.

Most individual entries are set out in a common format, detailing the first available records of local Jewish settlement; employment patterns; synagogues and other community buildings and their ultimate fate; the names of rabbis and other leaders; shifts in the local Jewish population from the beginning until the Holocaust; references to Jewish-Christian relations; Zionist organization; the implementation of anti-Jewish measures; the deportation of Jews; survival statistics; Jewish demographics up to the present; and whether there is a Holocaust memorial in the town today.

The bibliography is an indispensable guide through the maze of source material quantifying the tragedy. It includes close to six thousand annotated references to independent and periodical literature published in many countries and in many languages on all aspects of the recorded history of Hungarian Jewry before, during, and after the Holocaust. References to works in Hebrew, Russian and Yiddish are rendered in English translation. Each entry is provided with a succinct annotation when its title is not indicative of its content. Supplied with author, name, and geographic indexes, the book is easily usable.

It lists a wealth of little known but valuable material as well as work that has come to shape our view of the Holocaust. Its authors include such outstanding witnesses and commentators as Miklós Radnóti, probably the greatest poet of the Holocaust whose collection of poetry has just been publicly torched in an orgy of book burning at a rally of Hungarian racists. There are also such authorities as György Konrád, the sociologist and best-selling novelist, Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, professor of Holocaust studies and literature at Texas University in Dallas, and Paul Lendvai, a much revered foreign correspondent based in Vienna and lately also in Budapest, who is bitterly loathed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

The book faithfully represents the views of some academic apologists of Holocaust deniers as well as the treatment they sometimes manage to provoke from eminent historians. For example, one article listed by the book, originally published in the Budapest Népszabadság newspaper by Géza Jeszenszky, a Rightist politician turned historian, defends the new Orbán constitution by minimizing the responsibility of the state for the Holocaust crimes of the Horthy era. And his argument is accompanied by a brilliant rebuttal by Professor István Deák, a highly respected Hungarian historian at Columbia University, New York, in the context of a wider discussion of Orbán’s undemocratic legislative programme.

The government’s new constitution muscled through parliament in the absence of cross-party support came into force in 2012. It denies not the occurrence of the Holocaust but Hungary’s culpability for the Holocaust murders during the rule of Admiral Horthy, by shifting all blame on his German Nazi allies. Teachers throughout the Hungarian school system departing from this line face dismissal.

And the administration is about to set up a historiography authority operating under government control to clarify remaining controversial issues of the past. It will be called the Veritas Institute of Historical Research and open in 2014, the election year that the government has also just devoted to Holocaust remembrance. The purpose of the institute, according to the official Gazette, is “to strengthen national cohesion” by generating popular awareness of “the true nature of the fateful political and social developments” in the country’s recent history “interpreted correctly and free of distortion.”

Four Hungarian authors of little literary merit but notorious for their anti-Semitic views prominent during the Horthy era have been placed already on the national high-school curriculum. One of them has been honoured in a ceremony attended by high government officials. This has prompted Wiesel to return in protest the Order of Merit, Grand Cross, Hungary’s highest honour awarded to him in 2004. His repudiation letter also expressed great unease over the current proliferation of Horthy statues unveiled up and down the country amidst attempts to whitewash his Holocaust crimes.

Braham is also the recipient of the Hungarian Order of Merit, Officer’s Cross. He is distinguished professor emeritus of political science at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York and director of its Rosenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies. He is the author, co-author or editor of more than 60 books, including the monumental two-volume The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary (Columbia University Press, 1981, revised and enlarged in 1994). His works have been used as major reference sources in war crime and restitution disputes before the courts of Canada, Germany, Israel and the United States.

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THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes from London and his native Budapest. His next book: The Survivors (Smokestack/England, 2014).


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