Holocaust commemorations, public memory and antisemitism in Hungary: A video interview with András Heisler

HFP’s Hungarian-language sister publication, the Kanadai Magyar Hírlap, published a lengthy and–we think–insightful interview with András Heisler, the President of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz), during his official visit to Canada this week. Mr. Heisler was coming alongside Deputy State Secretary Csaba Latorcai and spent five days in Canada, meeting with various levels of federal government, including the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as visiting with Jewish and other religious communities. During the Ottawa leg of his journey, Mr. Heisler sat down with András Göllner, the founder and spokesperson of the Canadian Hungarian Democratic Charter, and agreed to an interview.

The video interview was conducted in Hungarian and we encourage those of you who understand the language to view it. Mr. Heisler emphasized on several occasion his belief in having a “nuanced” view of the current Orbán government and of political events in Hungary, in general. Mr. Heisler noted that there are approximately 100,000 Jews in Hungary today, while before World War II this community numbered over 800,000. Some 600,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and another 100,000 either did not return to Hungary, or emigrated between 1945 and 1956. Many settled in Canada.

“Hungarian Jews feel a very close affinity to Hungary–to Hungarian culture and to the Hungarian landscape,” said Mr. Heisler, noting that relatively few Hungarian Jews decided to take advantage of Aliyah, the right of people of Jewish descent to immigrate (or “return”) to Israel. Mr. Heisler raised this point in relation to a question and comment by Prof. Göllner.

“The Orbán government proclaims that Hungary is performing much better and that it is Europe’s success story. How can it be that some 600,000 Hungarians have left Hungary in the past five years,” asked the Charter’s spokesperson. Mr. Heisler responded that he believes that economic reasons are behind this troubling wave of Hungarian seeking a better life elsewhere, as opposed to political factors.

Mr. Heisler applauded Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s speech at the World Jewish Congress, as well as a speech by the Minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s Office, János Lázár.

“I can tell you a great many positive things about the Hungarian government, things that even within all of Europe–when seen from the perspective of the Jewish  community–are truly outstanding”, said Mr. Heisler. “Viktor Orbán gave a great speech at the World Jewish Congress and he declared zero tolerance for antisemitism,” he added, also noting the synagogues and Jewish cemeteries that have been restored through government assistance.

“But Viktor Orbán is also famous for telling us not to pay attention to what he says, but to what he does, ” noted Prof. Göllner. “And this is what is incompatible. He and his government do things that are not in keeping with what he says. For instance, if a Canadian prime minister had an official historian, and this civil servant travelled to a different country to celebrate with people who spread hatred against Jews, he would be dismissed from his position without delay. We cannot make even a single exception when it comes to condemning hatred,” added Prof. Göllner.

Mr. Heisler noted that there had, indeed, been some tension between Mazsihisz and the current government’s politics surrounding the public memory of the Holocaust.

“We always have to respond calmly. But we must also respond in some cases with force and always coherently. Mazsihisz is essentially an advocacy group, supporting the interests and development of Hungary’s Jewish community, as well as guaranteeing its survival. Many people expect us to adopt a type of political opposition approach. No, this is not our job. Our responsibility is advocacy. If possible, we must cooperate with the government of the day, which in this case is the Orbán government. But there are questions where we must not make any compromises,” noted Mr. Heisler. He added that one such red line is the memory of the Holocaust. Last year, Mazsihisz boycotted government-led Holocaust commemorations out of principle, but then added that overall, Hungary’s year of commemorations was commendable, including events organized by municipal governments, nearly 80% of which are tied to Fidesz.

The interview, which includes quite a dynamic discussion on the often duplicitous nature of the Orbán government, also touches on how Fidesz voted for Jobbik MPs to chair key parliamentary committees, including the committee overseeing cultural and education-related issues, as well as the recent refugee crisis and how it impacted the Jewish community.

If you understand Hungarian, it is well worth watching!

20 Comments

  1. Pierre Divenyi says:

    Christopher,

    For the sake of your not-hungarophone readers, would it be possible for you to post a verbatim translation of the entire interview?

    Thank you.

    • Christopher Adam says:

      Hi Pierre,

      I would like to do this. It is really just a matter of finding the time for it. I will try to produce a transcript, but if any of our readers who speak Hungarian would be able to help with this, please let me know!

      Thanks!

  2. Charlie London says:

    “Many people expect us to adopt a type of political opposition approach. No, this is not our job. Our responsibility is advocacy. If possible, we must cooperate with the government of the day, which in this case is the Orbán government…….”

    Is this the same passive acceptance that allowed many Jews to ‘shower’ to their deaths, unquestionably trusting – believing arbeit macht frei?

    Your powerful ‘do-it-yourself’ memorial on Freedom Square in the shadow of that hideous history-rewriting Gabriel and Eagle is so poignant.

    You accept the new Holocaust museum?

    No Mazsihisz – I believe you must speak out – forcefully and challengingly – to the real situation in Hungary.

    You owe it to the memory and descendants of the mass murders to challenge the antisemitism being perpetrated in Hungary.

    You know really why your fellow compatriots are leaving Hungary.

    “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

    • Charlie London says:

      …..I look forward to the English translation.

      • Pierre Divenyi says:

        Charlie,

        You are quoting the sentence (“…we must cooperate with the government of the day…”) that gives me goose bumps. Jewish communities were doing their best to do exactly this between the two wars, all over (central) Europe. In Hungary, they cooperated with Horthy’s government to the very end. Those among them who understood that this was suicidal, left for countries in which they felt protected, many of those who staid were exterminated. I am telling you this because, as a child in Budapest, I saw rows of yellow-starred children forced by policemen to march toward the railway station where a train was waiting for them.
        So, when do you put a stop sign on cooperation? How many new statues of openly antisemitic Horthy-epoch poets-historians will you accept without Mazsihisz vociferously complaining about it?

  3. Having viewed the whole interview in Hungarian, I regret to say that there’s not much to be learnt from it. Mr. Heisler said Mazsihisz is uncompromising about insisting on the truth about the Holocaust, but also said that he must abstain from party politics. Yet there is a very long list of ways in which the governing party is falsifying the truth about the Holocaust about which Mazsihisz is not objecting: notably in resurrecting and lionizing those whose words and deeds led to the Holocaust. To object to any of this, including the government support for contemporary bigots and revisionists, Mr. Heisler says would be party politics, so he has to leave it to the democratic opposition parties. He instead praised the words spoken by Orban and Lazar, but suggested that again, addressing the conflict between those words and the government’s deeds would be party politics. Altogether neither an informative nor a reassuring exchange.

    • Pierre Divenyi says:

      “Follow the money.” I learned to respect that Watergate maxim.

      I wonder how much Mazsihisz and/or Mr. Heisler receives from the government. Or, put it in another way, how many forints does he consider sufficient to keep his mouth shut.

  4. György Lázár says:

    It is unfair to ask Mr. Heisler to be in the forefront in the fight against Hungarian falsification of WWII history. He is the manager of a large religious organization; synagogues, cemeteries, provide funding for institutions, has a payroll, employees, provide for survivors etc. He is not a politician or historian, his job is not to fight racism and antisemitism.

    Like the Orthodox Union here in the US, they do not to fight racism, they provide kosher food! The problem is that there is no credible organization in Hungary similar to the Southern Poverty Law Center or ADL. Also, we need less posturing, dramatic statements and more actual organizational work, grassroots activism.

    This is not a Jewish issue, this is a Hungarian issue. Bartók, Szent-Györgyi, Béla Lugosi etc. were all antifascists, fought against racism and they had nothing to do with the Jewish religion. I happen to believe that the majority of Hungarian Americans would follow this progressive tradition with the leadership of the right organization just as they did between the two World Wars.

    • Charlie London says:

      György?

      If not Mazsihisz then who?

      I think Pierre’s point is key.

      And Stevan implies that Mr. Heisler is political when it suits him.

      • Charlie London says:

        In the meantime more Jews leave Hungary (600,000 in 5 years!)……because of latent and blatent antisemitism.

        Leave it to the politicians? The opposition has no voice in Hungary. Responsible mature political debate is impossible.

        In England charitable bodies representing their clients fight, fight, fight – lobby lobby lobby – knee deep in politics.

        If not Mazsihisz then who?

        There’ll soon be no Jews to represent – episode 2 of clearing Hungary of Jews.

        Only the Hungarian Roma to sort out now?

        • Charlie London says:

          My parenthetical ‘surprise’ of 600,000 in five years relates to 600,000 Hungarian citizens leaving in five years.

          As those who are knowledgeable about the demographics of Hungary know – there are only 48,000 Jews left in the whole of Hungary.

          In 1941 there were some 825,000 and we all know what happened to them.

          If today only a small percentage of the 600,000 diaspora are Jews – then my point was that there aren’t going to be too many left.

          Intelligent readers on Chris’ blog understand this – but my positioning could have been clearer.

  5. György Lázár says:

    Charlie, Mr. Heisler is an engineer and economist by training who does a fantastic job to manage his organization in a very tough situation. There are plenty of people in Hungary with international recognition, Ágnes Heller, György Konrád, Imre Kertész all spoke against racism and antisemitism… yet, to my knowledge, none of them created and/or supported the creation of a credible organization to fight racism. There are countless conferences, dramatic individual statements and Holocaust research projects, yet nobody can explain who installed 50+ Albert Wass statues in the last couple of years in Hungary, why are they whitewashing János Esterházy, Ferenc Koszorús, Ernő Dohnányi.. etc. Activism is needed and credible organizations. I’m happy that the Hóman issue is getting international recognition.

  6. Mr. Heisler is the shame of Hungarian Jewry. A servile puppet of the government traveling with Mr. Latorcai all over the world to legitimize the Orban government, including the shameful sentence in the Pre-Amble of the Constitution, the German Occupation Memorial etc…

    I do not understand why Mr. Gollner sat down to speak with this collaborator.

  7. Charlie, you just can’t help yourself…. Mr. Heisler did not say 600 000 Jews, as you are (deliberately or ignorantly?) trying to misquote him (I quote from you):
    “In the meantime more Jews leave Hungary (600,000 in 5 years!)……because of latent and blatent antisemitism.”
    He was talking about young and mainly professional Hungarians in general (that number is obviously include some from the minority groups, but their specific number is not shown in the available statistics).
    If you were as sincerely caring about humanitarian issues in Europe as you sometimes trying to show it, then you would have known about the large, but undoubtedly unavoidable migration from east to west within Europe. And then you wouldn’t even have dared to falsify such numbers….. However, with your comment – again – you have just proved your one-sidedness and your ignorance.

  8. András B. Göllner says:

    @Anna

    I sat down with Mr Heisler because he is the President of the Hungarian Association of Jewish Communities. If he was the Head of the Hungarian Association of Collaborators I would not have sat down with him.

    In case anyone missed it, this was not an interview but a discussion between the Head of MAZSIHISZ and the Founder and national spokesperson of the Hungarian Canadian Democratic Charter. I raised a number of issues that are of concern to democrats and civil rights activists about the Orbán regime’s conduct vis á vis the Jews and asked Mr Heisler to tell me WHAT HE FEELS when confronted by evidence that documents that regime’s affinity fraud towards the Jews of North America. His responses deserve more thoughtful reflection than demonstrated by my good friend Dr Harnad. Surely, he should know that the sound of silence is not just a song by Simon and Garfunkle.

    • Charlie London says:

      András?

      I think the problem is what Mazsihisz should be doing as an organisation – not how nice a bloke Mr Heisler is – or his feelings.

      It should be absolutely separate from government – and not take Orban’s – or any politician’s shilling.

      Hungary needs a more active – consensual – organisation – as I said earlier, which fights fights fights – lobby’s lobby’s lobby’s.

      Which begs the question:

      If not Mazsihisz, then who?

      Enlighten us please. I understand Anna’s frustration.

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