Imagine the White House chief of staff stating the following at a press conference after a significant meeting about a highly controversial issue with the leading representatives of American Jewry: “The President will address all of our fellow Americans as well as our Jewish citizens next week.” It does not take a lot of imagination to envision the firestorm of criticism that would follow such a division of the American people into real Americans versus Jewish citizens of America.
Yet, this is precisely what János Lázár, the Minister of State for the Prime Minister’s office, said after the unsuccessful round-table meeting with leading Hungarian Jewish organisations. Of course, he was not talking about fellow Americans but rather “fellow Hungarian countrymen” and “our Jewish citizens”.
Perhaps at other times this statement would have drawn more fire from liberal Hungarians and Hungarian Jews alike. At this time, though, Hungarian Jews are, in a sense, too focused on the trees to notice the forest. The largest Jewish organisation, Mazsihisz, in the past few weeks has been on a collision course with the government. On Sunday Mazsihisz identified three major issues with which the Hungarian government needs to deal in a satisfactory way for it to reconsider its decision to boycott the official commemorative events in 2014 scheduled for the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary.
One may argue that the comparison between Americans and Hungarians does not work since the American people is a rather recent construct that designates a group of individuals whose coherence is not determined along ethnic lines. That argument, however, also applies to the Hungarian nation since it, too, is not only an amalgamation of various ethnic groups tied together by history, cultural affiliations and language but is also a constitutively heterogeneous nation.
The history of Hungary shows that any ethnic group that wished to become absorbed into the body of the nation could do so. The patriotic Hungarian Jews in the middle of the 19th century believed it was no different for them. And indeed, the endeavours of Jews in Hungary for the past 150 years to acculturate within Hungary began to bear very significant fruits from the time Hungarian Jews committed themselves on the side of the Hungarians against the Austrians in the abortive Revolution and War of Independence of 1848-1849.
Once the law removed all legal obstacles from Jewish Hungarians with the passing of the 1867 Jewish Emancipation Law, Hungarianisation of Jews accelerated at a remarkable pace. An increasing number of Jews in Hungary began to think of themselves and carried on their lives as Hungarians with their Jewish cultural affiliations either remaining intact or shrinking rapidly.
The ascendancy of Jews in all areas of Hungarian culture occasioned a severe backlash with Admiral Miklós Horthy’s assumption of power in 1920. The first anti-Jewish measures in all of Europe were passed in Hungary in the same year Horthy took power. The Numerus Clausus law, a sort of reverse affirmative action law, greatly limited the number of Jewish students eligible for university admissions.
From that moment on, the Jewish citizens of Hungary must have known that they were not considered as part of the Hungarian nation. The periodic eruptions of anti-Jewish riots in universities in the 1920s and 1930s constituted another painful reminder that Hungarian Jews were not welcome in the universities. In 1938-39, further anti-Jewish laws were passed that limited the number of Jews allowed in various intellectual professions.
These measures were taken because Hungarians of Jewish descent had become “too successful” in Hungary in all cultural and professional areas and had to be restrained. Jewish success was also Hungarian success. Hungarian Jews came up with amazing inventions, achieved Olympic victories, expanded industrial output and furthered intellectual work to the benefit of the entire nation. Yet, to the anti-Semite, a Jew remained a Jew no matter his or her acculturated appearance and estrangement from all things Jewish.
Nothing prepared Hungarian Jews for the horror that would befall them toward the end of the Second World War. The most tragic period for Hungarian Jews came in summer 1944 when Jewish life outside Budapest came to an abrupt end with mass deportations and the systematic murder of an estimated 437,000 Hungarian Jews in eight weeks.
In Budapest itself, derisively called Judapest at the turn of the century for its large number of Jewish residents, Jews were herded into a large ghetto or went into hiding with false papers (many of whom, in a figurative if not literal sense, stayed in hiding as a Jew forever). That large numbers of Jews in Budapest could pass for non-Jews with the help of a piece of paper is eloquent testimony of the success of Hungarian Jewish acculturation.
The significant role of the regent of Hungary, Miklós Horthy, in allowing mass deportations from all of Hungary is clear to historians and Hungarian Jews. It is precisely the current Hungarian government’s attempt to re-evaluate and whitewash the Horthy regime with the proposed erection of a statue commemorating the 70th anniversary of the German occupation of Hungary that has unified the otherwise very fragmented Jewish Hungarian part of the Hungarian people to an unprecedented extent.
Many in Hungary remember the rather placid and ineffective role Jewish organisations played in the face of increasing pressure just before and during the Holocaust. Although the facts are not as clear, the popular perception among many Jews today is that the Jewish council in 1944 collaborated with the authorities and, thereby, made the situation for the Jews much worse. So, the decision not to go along with the Hungarian government’s expectations of Jewish collaboration in the 70th anniversary’s commemorations constitutes a watershed moment in Hungarian Jewish history.
It is incumbent upon everyone to support this extraordinary self-assertion by the official representatives of Hungarian Jewry by urging everyone involved to follow suit and boycott all official government-sponsored commemorations of the Holocaust in 2014. That means every international dignitary, speaker or guest invited by the Orbán government to participate should now express solidarity with the survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants in Hungary who have made the difficult but morally correct decision to boycott these events.
Yet, complete non-action would serve no purpose.
I believe that all people of goodwill, whether inside or outside of Hungary, may now begin to contribute to conceiving and/or putting into action alternative modes of commemorations (both traditional as well as innovative ones) that would serve to educate people about what happens when age-old prejudices, greed, the active hatred of some and the callous indifference of the majority are combined, as happened in Hungary but 70 years ago, resulting in the gradual dispossession and large-scale murder of more than half a million people classified as Jews in death camps and in the streets of Budapest.
As far as Hungarian Jews are concerned, 2014 will not be a year of national reconciliation and forgiveness but rather the year in which even the most Hungarian of the Hungarian Jews will have to realise that they are still perceived as “our fellow Jewish citizens” rather than as “our fellow Hungarians”.
Horthy died on 9 February 1957. Fifty-seven years later to the day, Hungarian Jewish resistance to the revival of the Horthy cult and its exclusionary definition of what it means to be Hungarian was born.
David Mandler holds a Ph.D. in English from New York University and teaches English at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. His latest short story “The Loft” is available through amazon.com. Read more from him at drmandler.wordpress.com.