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George Baumgarten

United Nations Commemoration Highlights “Holocaust in Hungary”

George Baumgarten, United Nations Correspondent, January 27, 2014

  The United Nations has rightly been criticized by the world Jewish community for many things—not the least of which is those member states which hijack its forum for their anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic views. But it has developed a fine and growing little office, whose sole function is to commemorate the Holocaust of European Jewry during the Second World War. Officially called “The Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Program”, it has some programs at various times of the year (including a program on genocide in early December), but its activities always peak, around what has come to be known as International Holocaust Memorial Day, which is celebrated on 27 January, the anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet Red Army in 1945. The Program is a part of the Outreach Division of the U.N.’s Department of Public Information.


   The Holocaust Memorial events usually have a unifying theme. This year it has several different aspects, but principally “Journeys Through the Holocaust”, with a particular emphasis on its events in Hungary, in the waning days of the war in Europe.  The Jews of Hungary were the last, largely intact Jewish community left on the continent in the Spring of 1944. The Nazis had left them largely untouched, because Hungary was nominally an ally of Nazi Germany. It was ruled by the “Regent”, Admikral Miklos Horthy. While pro-Nazi himself, Horthy was not terribly keen to round up his nation’s Jews…or at least, not of his own volition. Then in 1944, the Germans occupied Hungary, Admiral Horthy was reduced to a figurehead ruler, and the streets of the capital, Budapest, came largely under the control of a militant, pro-Nazi youth movement, the Arrow Cross. Thus was the stage set for the three-way confrontation between the Hungarian people, the homicidal, destructive retreating Nazis and the advancing Soviet Red Army. And in the midst of all this chaos, there loomed over it all the almost mythical, angelic figure of the miraculous savior, the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.


    On Thursday, 23 January, the Department of Public Information held a briefing on the Hungarian Holocaust, with several different speakers. Dr. Carol Rittner is a Distinguished Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. She noted that Hungary had a Jewish population of 825,000 prior to the War. Of these, some 437,000 were sent to Auschwitz in the Spring of 1944, which left some 388,000 still alive in Hungary, who were herded into ghettos in March of that year. In July, the Arrow Cross came to power, and started to round up the remaining Jews. Only 255,000 survived the War, perhaps as many as 100,000 directly or indirectly saved by Wallenberg. Citing Elie Wiesel, she said “Never  be a bystander”.


  Agnes Vertes, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor told of her terrible tribulations, during the course of several years in Hungary, before finally being liberated with the Soviet occupation.


     Hungarian Ambassador Csaba Kolosi referred to the Holocaust as “A breach of faith” on the part of all humanity. By his figures, Hungary lost 580,000 Jews, and 100,000 Roma (Gypsies), The nation owed these people a posthumous apology: it had failed to defend its own citizens. Every school student in Hungary must now come to visit the Nation’s Holocaust Education Center.


On the evening of the very same day, the Hungarian government held a program to open an exhibit on the 70th Anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary. It also released a communication from the Prime Minister’s office, formally establishing and designating 2014 as the official Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Year. It provides for an observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day, and for Marches of the Living in both Budapest and Auschwitz-Birkenau, as well as a Roma Holocaust Remembrance day on 2 August. In a stark, clear statement, it clearly states that “The Hungarian Holocaust is a tragedy of the Hungarian nation”. It particularly provides for marking the “Children’s Holocaust”, and for an organized program of Holocaust Education. And it mentions Hungary’s Jewish cultural revival—the strongest in Eastern Europe.


Ambassador Kolosi, speaking at the evening’s dedication, said that Hungary’s wartime government was guilty on two counts: First, it did not protect or defend its citizens, and Second, it assisted the Nazi invaders. A government that cannot protect its citizens, he asserted, is simply not worthy of its people’s trust.  And he told a touching story of an old teapot in his family’s cupboard, which was never used and which he later took away with him to university. The teapot, it turned out, had belonged to a Jew who was hidden during the Holocaust…and who never returned.


  Katrina Lantos Swett is Chair of the Tom Lantos Institute, named for her late father Tom Lantos, who was Chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives. Both her parents were born in Hungary, and were saved through the efforts of Raoul Wallenberg, whose biography, The Hero of Budapest, awaits publication as this article goes to press. Dr. Swett believes that we, today, must arm ourselves for the present, as threats are ever with us. She derided the Hungarians, who described one massacre as merely a “local police action”, and she called upon it to take action.


     The last of the evening’s speakers was Dr. Tamas Fellegi (fell-EH-hee), President of the Hungary Initiatives Foundation. He noted that—ironically—the Hungarian Jewish Community had been among the most assimilated in Europe, but still suffered its fate as Jews. He quoted Elie Wiesel, to the effect that survivors must always testify to their experiences; it is their duty to history. And Humanity must always maintain its hope…and its perseverance.


     A few days before all these events, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, came to Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue, to speak in advance of the Holocaust events at the U.N. Park East’s Rabbi, Arthur Schneier, is himself a Hungarian holocaust survivor. Secretary-General Ban called Rabbi Schneier, in advance of his recent visit to Auschwitz. That camp and the killings there said Ban,  “…played a formative role in defining the ideals and objectives of the United Nations”. “The cruelty”, said Mr. Ban, “was so profound; the scale so large; the camps spread so far and wide”. “As we have seen”, he said, “from Cambodia to Rwanda to Srebrenica, we have not eliminated the poison that led to genocide”. But he hoped that such horror might be avoided in the future, “…anywhere, to anyone or any group”.

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